MEPS 291:81-91 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/meps291081

Distribution of sympatric seahorse species along a gradient of habitat complexity in a seagrass-dominated community

Janelle M. R. Curtis1,2,*, Amanda C. J. Vincent1,2

1Department of Biology, McGill University, 1205 Dr. Penfield Avenue, Montréal, Québec H3A 1B1, Canada
2Project Seahorse, Fisheries Centre, University of British Columbia, 2204 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

ABSTRACT: We present estimates of local population abundance, distribution and habitat preference for 2 European seahorse species, Hippocampus guttulatus and H. hippocampus. We predicted that these sympatric species would partition their habitat into 2 broadly defined habitat types: complex vegetated habitats and sparsely vegetated sand flats. We sampled populations using underwater visual census techniques over landscape (100s to 1000s m) and microhabitat scales (<1 m). Over landscape scales, we estimated abundance and quantified habitat associations using generalized linear models. Over microhabitat scales, we tested for holdfast (attachment site) preferences using selection indices. Both species were patchy in distribution, but H. guttulatus mean density (0.073 ind. m–2) was one order of magnitude greater than that of H. hippocampus (0.007 ind. m–2). At a landscape scale, H. guttulatus abundance was positively correlated with an index of habitat complexity, the percentage of substrate covered by flora and sessile fauna. Conversely, H. hippocampus used more open and less speciose habitats that were subjected to greater oceanic influences. At microhabitat scales, both species significantly preferred grasping holdfasts over barren surfaces, but the species differed in holdfast preferences: H. guttulatus grasped all prospective holdfast types with equal probability while H. hippocampus significantly avoided both fauna and flora that formed large colonies or tracts of dense vegetation. Patterns in habitat use were consistent with differences in morphology and foraging strategy. Despite similar life histories, these sympatric species may respond differently to disturbances that modify habitat structure and complexity over landscape or microhabitat scales.

KEY WORDS: Habitat selection · Habitat complexity · Hippocampus · Syngnathidae · Habitat suitability models · Underwater visual census · Foraging strategy

Full text in pdf format