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Night shift: expansion of temporal niche use following reductions in predator density.


Predation shapes many fundamental aspects of ecology. Uncertainty remains, however, about whether predators can influence patterns of temporal niche construction at ecologically relevant timescales. Partitioning of time is an important mechanism by which prey avoid interactions with predators. However, the traits that control a prey organism's capacity to operate during a particular portion of the diel cycle are diverse and complex. Thus, diel prey niches are often assumed to be relatively unlikely to respond to changes in predation risk at short timescales. Here we present evidence to the contrary. We report results that suggest that the anthropogenic depletion of daytime active predators (species that are either diurnal or cathemeral) in a coral reef ecosystem is associated with rapid temporal niche expansions in a multi-species assemblage of nocturnal prey fishes. Diurnal comparisons of nocturnal prey fish abundance in predator rich and predator depleted reefs at two atolls revealed that nocturnal fish were approximately six (biomass) and eight (density) times more common during the day on predator depleted reefs. Amongst these, the prey species that likely were the most specialized for nocturnal living, and thus the most vulnerable to predation (i.e. those with greatest eye size to body length ratio), showed the strongest diurnal increases at sites where daytime active predators were rare. While we were unable to determine whether these observed increases in diurnal abundance by nocturnal prey were the result of a numerical or behavioral response, either effect could be ecologically significant. These results raise the possibility that predation may play an important role in regulating the partitioning of time by prey and that anthropogenic depletions of predators may be capable of causing rapid changes to key properties of temporal community architecture.

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