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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 693:141-155 (2022)  -  DOI:

Regional variation in seagrass complexity drives blue crab Callinectes sapidus mortality and growth across the northern Gulf of Mexico

Christian Todd Hayes1,5,*, Scott B. Alford2, Benjamin A. Belgrad3, Kelly M. Correia3, M. Zachary Darnell1, Bradley T. Furman4, Margaret O. Hall4, Charles W. Martin2, Ashley M. McDonald2, Delbert L. Smee3, Kelly M. Darnell1

1Division of Coastal Sciences, School of Ocean Science and Engineering, The University of Southern Mississippi, Ocean Springs, MS 39564, USA
2Nature Coast Biological Station, University of Florida, Cedar Key, FL 32625, USA
3Dauphin Island Sea Lab, Dauphin Island, AL 36528, USA
4Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, USA
5Present address: Department of Biology, Environmental Science, and Health Science, Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, PA 15370, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Seagrass meadows provide greater predator refuge and resource availability than unvegetated habitats and generally improve the survival and growth rates of associated animals. Few studies, however, have examined how these relationships might vary at a region-wide spatial scale. The blue crab Callinectes sapidus is a commercially important species that uses turtlegrass Thalassia testudinum habitats, but it is unclear if blue crab use of seagrass habitats varies across the northern Gulf of Mexico (GOM), USA. We conducted synoptic predation and growth experiments at 6 turtlegrass-dominated estuaries in the northern GOM to evaluate the role of seagrass structural complexity on juvenile (9.7-44 mm carapace width) blue crab mortality due to predation and growth. Relationships of blue crab predation and growth rate with seagrass shoot density, canopy height, temperature, and seagrass leaf area index (LAI) were evaluated using linear and generalized linear mixed effects models. Mortality rates due to predation (50 ± 9.6% [mean ± SD] crabs eaten, n = 286) showed negative relationships with LAI across the northern GOM. Conversely, mean crab growth rate (0.513 ± 0.317 mm d-1) varied across the northern GOM but was independent of seagrass shoot density or canopy height. We found that: (1) turtlegrass-dominated beds with a greater seagrass LAI provided more effective cover for juvenile blue crabs across the northern GOM, (2) blue crabs across multiple GOM estuaries responded similarly to changes in LAI, and (3) blue crab growth varied across the northern GOM and was likely dependent on regional factors unrelated to structural complexity. This study illustrates the value of conducting synchronous field-based experiments across broad spatial scales to identify regional patterns and the influence of regional versus local drivers.

KEY WORDS: Habitat complexity · Nursery hypothesis · Seagrass · Predation · Blue crab · Growth rate · Turtlegrass · Thalassia testudinum · Large-scale

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Cite this article as: Hayes CT, Alford SB, Belgrad BA, Correia KM and others (2022) Regional variation in seagrass complexity drives blue crab Callinectes sapidus mortality and growth across the northern Gulf of Mexico. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 693:141-155.

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