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Network analysis reveals multispecies spatial associations in the shark community of a Caribbean marine protected area

Grace A. Casselberry*, Andy J. Danylchuk, John T. Finn, Bryan M. DeAngelis, Adrian Jordaan, Clayton G. Pollock, Ian Lundgren, Zandy Hillis-Star, Gregory B. Skomal

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Many shark species exhibit complex spatial ecology throughout their life histories, posing a challenge for conservation and management. Although most marine protected areas (MPAs) were originally established to protect less mobile organisms, protection of shark species from fishing and other impacts is possible if individuals exhibit high residency and site fidelity within the MPA boundaries. For this study, we used a fixed acoustic telemetry array to study the residency, habitat use, and interspecific space use among four shark species in Buck Island Reef National Monument (BIRNM), an MPA in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. From June 2013 – May 2017, 11 nurse sharks Ginglymostoma cirratum, 6 lemon sharks Negaprion brevirostris, 13 Caribbean reef sharks Carcharhinus perezi, and 6 tiger sharks Galeocerdo cuvier were monitored in the array. Overall, residency was high for all species with a mean residency index of 0.52 or higher for each species. Network analysis revealed complex inter- and intraspecific spatial associations among individuals. Community detection algorithms showed that G. cirratum and N. brevirostirs frequently used the same areas in BIRNM, selecting for shallow sand and seagrass habitats near linear reefs, while G. cuvier and C. perezi had more individualized space use. C. perezi also exhibited ontogenetic shifts, developing individual territories and using deeper water with increasing body size. This work emphasizes the importance of MPA size, placement, and habitat composition when aiming to protect highly mobile species with potentially large home ranges and shifting space use throughout their life histories.