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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 649:97-110 (2020)  -  DOI:

Intraspecific competition in size-structured populations: ontogenetic shift in the importance of interference competition in a key marine herbivore

Carla A. Narvaez1,3,*, Bernard Sainte-Marie2, Ladd E. Johnson1

1Département de biologie and Québec-Océan, Université Laval, Québec, Québec G1V 0A6, Canada
2Institut Maurice-Lamontagne, Pêches et Océans, Mont-Joli, Québec G5H 3Z4, Canada
3Present address: Department of Biology, Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Individuals rarely have equal competitive abilities, with body size being one of the most important attributes affecting the mechanism (i.e. exploitative and interference) and consequences of competition. Competitive interactions within size-structured populations are complex and can have major implications for population dynamics, community structure and evolutionary processes. Destructive grazing of kelp beds by the green urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis creates barrens where high-quality food is scarce and intraspecific competition may have an important role in structuring populations. In this study, we experimentally identified the mechanisms underlying size-asymmetric competition between small, medium, and large size classes of the green urchin. A field-based mesocosm experiment showed that small and medium sea urchins grew less and produced smaller gonads when competing for food with large conspecifics. Surprisingly, when food was provided ad libitum but large urchins were present, small individuals’ growth and foraging behavior were reduced, providing strong evidence for interference competition between small and large sea urchins. Interactions between medium and large sea urchins were, however, more influenced by exploitative competition, suggesting that sea urchins shift ontogenetically from a situation of intense interference competition to one dominated by exploitative competition. The size structure of the population can thus determine the relative importance of interference and exploitative competition. In turn, the importance of interference competition may influence size structure by inhibiting the growth of smaller urchins, a pattern consistent with the prediction of theoretical models. The consideration of size-asymmetric competitive interactions can lead to a better understanding of population size structure and dynamics.

KEY WORDS: Sea urchin · Strongylocentrotus · Size-asymmetric · Age-structured · Invertebrate · Exploitative competition · Population structure

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Cite this article as: Narvaez CA, Sainte-Marie B, Johnson LE (2020) Intraspecific competition in size-structured populations: ontogenetic shift in the importance of interference competition in a key marine herbivore. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 649:97-110.

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