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Trait-mediated indirect effects in a natural tidepool system


We demonstrate an apparent trait-mediated indirect interaction (TMII) of predators on primary producers in a natural community by altering prey behavior over short and long time scales. Small predatory sea stars (Leptasterias spp.) caused herbivorous snails (Tegula funebralis) added to rocky intertidal tidepools to quickly flee into refuge microhabitats outside tidepools within days, and this was associated with a 58% increase in microalgal growth after 2 weeks. Similarly, removing sea stars caused snails to increase use of tidepools for 1–10 months. After adding sea stars to tidepools, snails quickly fled and then consistently increased use of refuges outside tidepools for 10 months. This was associated with average increases of 59% for microalgal growth over 1 month and 254% for macroalgal growth over 8 months inside tidepools. In 63 unmanipulated tidepools, densities of sea stars and snails were negatively correlated. High densities of snails were associated with unpalatable algal species and bare rock, while high densities of sea stars were associated with palatable algal species, suggesting that this apparent TMII may have community-level impacts. Though multiple lines of evidence suggest TMIIs were likely operating in this system, it was not possible to experimentally partition the relative contributions of TMIIs and density-mediated indirect interactions (DMIIs), so further caging experiments are necessary to distinguish their relative strengths. Overall, we suggest that predators can benefit primary producers by changing prey behavior even when predators and prey are unrestrained by cages or mesocosms, embedded in complex communities, and observed over multiple time scales.

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