MEPS 281:181-191 (2004)  -  doi:10.3354/meps281181

Interference competition for space in nursery habitats: density-dependent effects on growth and dispersal in juvenile shore crabs Carcinus maenas

Per-Olav Moksnes1,2,*

1Department of Marine Ecology, Göteborg University, Kristineberg Marine Research Station, 450 34 Fiskebäckskil, Sweden 2Present address: Department of Marine Ecology, Göteborg University, Box 461, 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden

ABSTRACT: In marine organisms with dispersing larval stages, current ecological theory suggests that recruitment of benthic juveniles may be limited by juvenile habitats and regulated by early post-settlement processes. However, few studies have attempted to identify the density-dependent mechanisms responsible for these demographic bottlenecks. I conducted a series of experiments to assess if interference competition for space, within nursery habitats, could result in density-dependent juvenile growth and dispersal from refuge habitats, and regulate local populations of juvenile shore crabs Carcinus maenas in shallow nursery areas in Sweden. In laboratory mesocosms, increased natural densities of similarly sized crabs resulted in decreased growth and increased per capita emigration from mussel habitats, even though food was provided in excess, suggesting that competition for space and mutual interference mediated the density-dependent growth and dispersal. This was supported in a field experiment where a density-dependent relation was found between the abundance of juvenile crabs in nursery areas and their migration rates to experimental mussel patches. The results suggest that interference competition for space and density-dependent emigration from refuge habitats, coupled with habitat-specific mortality, is an important regulating mechanism for juvenile shore crab populations, in particular for older juvenile cohorts that have escaped inter-cohort cannibalism through a size refuge. Density-dependent effects on growth were found only at unusually high natural densities and may, therefore, be less important as a regulating mechanism. However, negative effects on feeding rates and growth at high conspecific densities may represent an important selective force in juvenile migration behavior. Density-dependent dispersal was found at juvenile densities that are regularly found in nursery areas, suggesting that nursery habitats become saturated with juveniles during the recruitment season and represent a limiting resource for local populations, consistent with field observations of shore crab populations in the study area.

KEY WORDS: Carcinus maenas · European green crab · Recruitment regulation · Density-dependence · Interference competition · Migration · Growth · Nursery habitat

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