Adaptive strategies that reduce predation on Caribbean spiny lobster postlarvae during onshore transport

Acosta, Charles A., Mark J. Butler IV

Limnol. Oceanogr., 44(3), 1999, 494-501 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.1999.44.3.0494

ABSTRACT: Like many marine species with meroplanktonic larvae, the Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) has a postlarval stage that moves from the oceanic plankton to inshore nurseries only under specific environmental conditions (i.e., at night, in the surface water layer, on the flood tide, and during new moon), presumably to avoid predation or to enhance onshore transport. Using field and mesocosm experiments, we compared predation on planktonic postlarvae swimming at night near the surface and bottom over coastal habitats along typical offshore-inshore transport paths and determined whether predation rates differed between lunar periods (new moon vs. full moon) and with prey density (i.e., predator encounter rates). We also measured predation on transparent (newly settled) and pigmented (nearing metamorphosis) postlarvae sheltering in coral reef, seagrass, and macroalgal habitats during the day. We measured predation on postlarvae swimming near the surface and bottom along typical offshore-inshore transport paths (i.e., coral reefs, coastal lagoon, and bay) by tethering postlarvae to floats that drifted on the nightly flood tide during new moon. To test the hypothesis that new-moon transport of postlarvae may have evolved as a means to avoid higher predation under the bright full moon, we repeated the pelagic tethering experiments at the reef and in the bay during full moon. Mortality was highest over coral reefs regardless of lunar phase, but it was lower nearshore, especially in the bay near the surface and during new moon. Predation on benthic, recently settled transparent postlarvae and pigmented postlarvae (nearing metamorphosis) was also higher when tethered on the reef as opposed to vegetated habitats in the lagoon and bay. In experimental mesocosms, planktivorous fish were equally efficient at consuming postlarvae under new- and full-moon conditions when postlarval density was high, as it is in the constricted water column over the reefs. However, when postlarvae were less dense, mortality was significantly lower during new moon. Collectively, these results indicate that several behavioral traits exhibited by postlarval spiny lobsters, including inshore migration during the darkest lunar phase, use of surface waters, and settlement in vegetated habitats, reduce their risk of predation, particularly in the shallow bay. No single behavioral strategy is universally advantageous across all coastal habitats, but combined, they are an effective means to reduce predation across heterogeneous environments that postlarvae must transit during recruitment.

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