MEPS 268:231-243 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/meps268231

Behavioral mechanisms underlying the refuge value of benthic habitat structure for two flatfishes with differing anti-predator strategies

Clifford H. Ryer*, Allan W. Stoner, Richard H. Titgen

Fisheries Behavioral Ecology Program, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service/ National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association (NMFS/NOAA), Hatfield Marine Science Center, Newport, Oregon 97365, USA

ABSTRACT: Juvenile flatfish habitat is usually modeled on the basis of sediment grain-size, depth and temperature. Recent evidence indicates that some juvenile flatfishes associate with emergent structures such as sponge, shell and other biogenic and bed-form features of otherwise low-relief shelf habitats. In laboratory experiments we examined the habitat preference and effects of habitat structure upon predation vulnerability of sub-yearling (Age-0) Pacific halibut Hippoglossus stenolepis and northern rock sole Lepidopsetta polyxystra. When given the choice between bare sand or sand with 16% sponge coverage, halibut demonstrated strong preference for sponge, while rock sole showed no preference. Larger Age-2 halibut (used as predators in the subsequent experiment) also preferred sponge, but this preference declined with increasing hunger. When allowed to forage for Age-0 flatfishes in either bare sand or sponge, predators consumed more prey in sand and consumed more Age-0 halibut than rock sole. We were able to determine which behavioral processes in the predator-prey interaction were modified by the presence of habitat structure. Predator-prey encounter rates decreased in the sponge habitat as predator search was impeded: predators paused more frequently and swam more slowly to maneuver through the sponges. Sponges also tended to hinder the pursuit of prey. Rock sole utilized stereotypic flatfish defense-mechanisms, relying upon immobility, burial and crypsis, and were less likely to flush at a predator¹s approach than halibut. Halibut have a less developed ability to mimic sediments, but a deeper/narrower body that confers greater swimming speed, and were more likely to flush as a predator approached. Once they had flushed and were pursued by a predator, halibut were more likely to escape than were rock sole. These experiments support an accumulating body of evidence that emergent structure, in otherwise low-relief benthic habitats, may play an important role in the ecology of some juvenile flatfishes. Removal of emergent structure by towed fishing gear and other anthropogenic and/or natural disturbance may influence patterns of distribution for juvenile halibut, as fish redistribute to less preferred habitat, and may decrease survival rates through increased losses to predation.

KEY WORDS: Habitat complexity · Pacific halibut · Rock sole · Predator-prey interaction · Behavior · Essential fish habitat

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