An Invasive Crab in the South Atlantic Bight: Friend or Foe?
Hollebone, Amanda L.
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The green porcelain crab, Petrolisthes armatus, has recently invaded oyster reefs of the South Atlantic Bight at mean densities of up to several thousand individuals m-². Despite the crab’s tremendous densities and wide-spread occurrence, its population dynamics, the reasons for its success, and its ecological impacts have remained unknown. We used field monitoring in two estuaries of coastal Georgia to assess spatial and temporal patterns of distribution, demographics, reproduction, and effects on native crabs. We used field and mesocosm experiments with constructed oyster reef communities of varying native species richness and adult porcelain crab additions to assess why the invader is successful and how it impacts native species and communities. We found P. armatus distributed throughout the estuaries, primarily in the lower regions and low intertidal. Sex ratios were 1:1 throughout the year. During warmer months mean densities ranged from 1,000-11,000 crabs m-², 20-90% of mature females were gravid, and numerous recruits were present. Despite decreases in density of 64->99% in the winter, populations rebounded in the spring. Maximum mean densities were 37 times the highest densities ever recorded and population fecundity exceeded that of the native range by an order of magnitude, but correlations did not show significant negative effects of P. armatus on native crabs. Field experiments suggested that invasion was successful due to tremendous recruitment overwhelming biotic resistance by native species richness or predation. The crab only needed structure to invade, but the presence of adult conspecifics significantly enhanced recruitment (i.e., intraspecific “invasional meltdown”). We documented several impacts on native biota, including the (1) suppression of oyster growth, benthic algal biomass, native crab recruitment, and native goby densities and the (2) enhancement of bivalve recruitment, macroalgal cover, and survivorship of oyster drills. We did not, though, see an effect on native taxonomic richness. The large direct and indirect effects of P. armatus on growth, survivorship, and recruitment of virtually all of the most common native species on oyster reefs in the short-term (4-12 weeks) and at relatively low experimental densities (750-1500 crabs m-²) imply considerable long-term consequences for a major hard-substrate habitat of the South Atlantic Bight.