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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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Settlement and early juvenile stages are considered a bottleneck in the Life history of many epibenthic organisms because of high predation mortality. Nursery habitats may play an important role in mitigating settlement and post-settlement mortality by providing refuge from predation. We examined these relationships in postlarvae and early juvenile stages of the shore crab Carcinus maenas L. in laboratory and field tethering experiments. We studied habitat and size related habitat mortality using postlarvae and young juvenile crabs as prey, and various predators, including juvenile conspecifics, in several habitats common in shallow (0 to 1 m) soft bottom nursery areas on the Swedish west coast. Settling mortality was high in open sand (80 to 90%), whereas a significant habitat refuge was obtained in mussel beds, eelgrass and filamentous green algae, the latter yielding the lowest mortality (13 to 14%). Small differences in structural complexity of ephemeral macroalgae dramatically affected predation mortality of first instar crabs, with a significant refuge obtained only in algae of medium complexity. Predation rate on tethered crabs in the field was high (52 to 67%) only on the smallest crabs (<5 mm carapace width, CW), which obtained a significant refuge in the eelgrass habitat compared to open sand. Mortality for larger crabs (5 to 25 mm CW) was low (<10%) and similar in sand and eelgrass habitats. Our results indicate that predation is an important process that can create a bottleneck for juvenile shore crab populations during settlement and early juvenile stages, mediated by the availability of nursery habitats. Postlarvae obtained refuge from predation in several different habitats, suggesting that the recruitment of juvenile shore crabs will be less affected by temporal and spatial variation of any single habitat type. The strong size refuge for crabs larger than 4 mm CW indicates that key predators are small. We suggest that cannibalistic juveniles, which caused predation rates similar to or higher than all other investigated predators, are dominant predators on settling postlarvae and young juvenile crabs in nursery areas. We further propose that habitat- and size-specific predation by small epibenthic predators are an important selective force in habitat selection by postlarvae and ontogenetic shifts in habitat use by juveniles.




bottleneck; nursery habitats; size refuge; habitat complexity; settlement; megalopa; macroalgae; Skagerrak-Kattegat