Predator-induced Plasticity in Egg Capsule Deposition in the Mudsnail, Tritia obsoleta
Most marine invertebrates develop in the plankton, where microscopic offspring can avoid abundant benthic predators until settlement. However, at least four phyla of marine invertebrates (Annelida, Mollusca, Nemertea, and Platyhelminthes) deposit benthic egg capsules or masses. Often, these animals possess additional means to protect their young, including chemical or morphological defenses or nonrandom selection of deposition sites. Egg capsule deposition is the dominant reproductive strategy among gastropod molluscs, including the mud snail, Tritia obsoleta. In intertidal and shallow subtidal habitats in New England, the mud snail preferentially deposits egg capsules on blades of eelgrass (Zostera marina), a substrate that stands upright in the water column. In a field and lab study, we examined deposition of T. obsoleta egg capsules and found that mud snails lay their egg capsules on eelgrass at 6-8 cm off the benthos or higher. When exposed to egg capsule predators, hermit crabs and periwinkles, mud snails increase the average height of deposition off the benthos by 1-3 cm. In the presence of hermit crabs, capsules deposited on a blade of eelgrass 5 cm above the benthos have survivorship as much as 4 times higher than capsules deposited directly on the benthos. We suggest that deposition of egg capsules off of the benthos is an adaptive response allowing mud snails to protect their embryos from benthic predators. We also provide evidence that snails use characteristics of the eelgrass itself to ensure capsules are laid well above the benthos.