Predator biomass and habitat characteristics affect the magnitude of consumptive and non-consumptive effects (NCEs): experiments between blue crabs, mud crabs, and oyster prey
Hill, Jennifer Marie
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Recent research has focused on the non-lethal effects of predator intimidation and fear, dubbed non-consumptive effects (NCEs), in which prey actively change their behavior and habitat use in response to predator chemical cues. Although NCEs can have large impacts on community structure, many studies have ignored differences in predator population structure and properties of the natural environment that may modify the magnitude and importance of NCEs. Here, I investigated the roles of predator size and density (i.e. biomass), as well as habitat characteristics, on predator risk assessment and the magnitude of consumptive and NCEs using blue crabs, mud crabs, and oyster prey as a model system. Predation experiments between blue crabs and mud crabs demonstrated that blue crabs consume mud crabs; however, the consumptive effects were dependent upon blue crab body size and habitat type. When mud crabs were exposed to chemical cues from differing biomasses of blue crabs in laboratory mesocosms, mud crab activity and predation on oysters was decreased in response to high biomass treatments (i.e. large and multiple small blue crabs), but not to low biomass predators (i.e single small blue crab), suggesting that risk associated with predator size is perceptible via chemical cues and is based on predator biomass. Further experiments showed that the perception of risk and the magnitude of the NCEs were affected by the sensory cues available and the diet of the blue crab predator. The NCE based on blue crab biomass was also demonstrated in the field where water flow can disperse cues necessary for propagating NCEs. Properties of water flow were measured within the experimental design and during the experiment and confirmed cage environments were representative of natural conditions and that patterns in NCEs were not associated with flow characteristics. These results affect species conservation and commercial fisheries management and demonstrate that we cannot successfully predict NCEs without considering predator size structure and the contexts under which we determine predator risk.