Document Type



Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Publication Date



Ecological Monographs





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Current theory on the population dynamics of marine species with complex life history patterns posits that a suite of physical and biotic forces (e.g., habitat structure and density-dependent predation or emigration) control survival and abundance in early life history, particularly after settlement. We have conducted a long-term sampling effort accompanied by a series of field and laboratory experiments examining the joint effects of habitat type, body size, and population density upon abundance and survival of early juveniles of the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus. In addition, the chance occurrence of a tropical storm during one set of experiments provided an opportunity to assess the impact of a physical disturbance upon newly settled blue crab survival and abundance. In the 10-yr sampling effort, we quantified relationships between sequential life history stages (juvenile crab instars) in seagrass beds, the initial nursery habitat for blue crabs in the lower Chesapeake Bay. Inter-instar relationships were defined as the densities of larger instars as dependent on the densities of smaller instars. Inter-instar relationships for the youngest instars are described by hyperbolic functions until crabs begin to emigrate to unvegetated habitats at approximately the fifth instar. Inter-instar relationships between crabs larger than the fifth instar and smaller crabs become either parabolic or linear functions and decay as the number of instars between sequential life history stages increases. While both the hyperbolic and parabolic functions are indicative of populations regulated by density-dependent processes, either predation or emigration, the decay in the functions describing the inter-instar relationships for crabs larger than the fifth instar indicates that the suite of processes regulating this segment of the population changes qualitatively.

In laboratory and field experiments, the effects of vegetated and unvegetated habitats and size-specific predation on newly settled juveniles were tested. Tethering was used to quantify relative rates of predation, and a laboratory study was conducted to determine if tethering induced treatment-specific bias. We found no statistically significant interactions between the tethering treatment and the factor treatments of crab size and habitat during the laboratory study, indicating that tethering did not produce treatment-specific bias. Thus, tethering provided a relative measure of predation that allowed comparisons between treatments of habitat and crab size on crab survival. In both laboratory and field experiments, survival was significantly higher in vegetated habitats and with increasing size until the ninth instar, when survival did not differ by habitat. This difference explains the dispersal from vegetated to unvegetated habitats that occurred between the fifth and seventh instars. In addition, survival of all crabs was significantly increased both during and after Tropical Storm Danielle compared to pre-storm conditions.

A model is developed that describes juvenile survival as a function of crab size and habitat type. Survival curves in both habitats are represented by similar sigmoid functions with survival higher in vegetated habitats. Subsequently, the survival of newly settled blue crabs is likely dependent on the availability of complex habitat. Thus, a suite of biotic and physical processes, both density-dependent and density-independent, control the early life history after settlement for the blue crab.




blue crabs; Callinectes sapidus; Chesapeake Bay; experimental bias; predation; recruits

Publication Statement

Copyright by the Ecological Society of America.