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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 637:59-69 (2020)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13227

Testing ecological release as a compensating mechanism for mass mortality in a keystone predator

Jenna Sullivan-Stack*, Bruce A. Menge

Department of Integrative Biology, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon 97330, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Top predator decline has been ubiquitous across systems over the past decades and centuries, and predicting changes in resultant community dynamics is a major challenge for ecologists and managers. Ecological release predicts that loss of a limiting factor, such as a dominant competitor or predator, can release a species from control, thus allowing increases in its size, density, and/or distribution. The 2014 sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS) outbreak decimated populations of the keystone predator Pisaster ochraceus along the Oregon coast, USA. This event provided an opportunity to test the predictions of ecological release across a broad spatial scale and determine the role of competitive dynamics in top predator recovery. We hypothesized that after P. ochraceus loss, populations of the subordinate sea star Leptasterias sp. would grow larger, more abundant, and move downshore. We based these predictions on prior research in Washington State showing that Leptasterias sp. competed with P. ochraceus for food. Further, we predicted that ecological release of Leptasterias sp. could provide a bottleneck to P. ochraceus recovery. Using field surveys, we found no clear change in density or distribution in Leptasterias sp. populations post-SSWS, and decreases in body size. In a field experiment, we found no evidence of competition between similar-sized Leptasterias sp. and P. ochraceus. Thus, the mechanisms underlying our predictions were not in effect along the Oregon coast, which we attribute to differences in habitat overlap and food availability between the 2 regions. Our results suggest that response to the loss of a dominant competitor can be unpredictable even when based in theory and previous research.


KEY WORDS: Compensation · Competition · Ecological release · Keystone predation · Mass mortality · Oregon · Rocky intertidal · Sea star wasting


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Cite this article as: Sullivan-Stack J, Menge BA (2020) Testing ecological release as a compensating mechanism for mass mortality in a keystone predator. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 637:59-69. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13227

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