The Ecology of Yikes! Environmental Forces Alter Prey Perception of Predators

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Smee, Delbert Lee
Weissburg, Marc J.
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Hard clams, Mercenaria mercenaria, are slow-moving organisms that are heavily preyed upon by both blue crabs and knobbed whelks in coastal Georgia. Hard clams are unable to escape from these predators, and when found, are commonly injured and/or consumed. Thus, their best survival strategy is to avoid their predators. In this study, we compared changes in clam behavior when exposed to blue crab and knobbed whelk predators. Clams reduced their feeding time when exposed to crabs and whelks, exudates from these predators, and to injured conspecifics. In a field experiment, we compared clam survival when caged predators where near clam beds vs. controls with empty cages. Clam survival was significantly higher when caged crabs or whelks were near, suggesting that clams detected these predators, reduced their feeding time, and were less apparent to ambient consumers. In lab behavioral assays, clams were less responsive to blue crabs in turbulent flows, and in the field, turbulence reduced the distance clams reacted to blue crabs. Previous studies have shown that blue crabs turbulence also diminishes blue crab foraging efficiency, and we conducted a field experiment to determine how turbulence affected clam-crab interactions. Our results suggest that predation intensity is greatest at intermediate turbulence levels, and lowest in flows with low and high turbulence levels. We attribute this pattern of predation intensity to differential effects of turbulence on the sensory abilities of crabs and clams. That is, in low turbulent flows, clams have a sensory advantage over crabs, and initiate avoidance behaviors before they are detected. However, as turbulence increases, clam perception diminishes faster than crabs, switching the sensory advantage to crabs, and making clams more vulnerable to consumers. In highly turbulent flows, crab perception declines at a rate faster than clams, and the sensory advantage returns to clams.
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