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Injured conspecifics as an alarm cue for the sea urchin Evechinus chloroticus

Arie J. P. Spyksma*, Nick T. Shears, Richard B. Taylor

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Predator mediation of sea urchin grazing pressure may occur via lethal removal of individual sea urchins or non-lethal modification of sea urchin behaviour. Several studies have shown that predation-related cues can affect sea urchin movement and grazing rates, but generalisations about the types of cues that prompt responses and the magnitude of those responses will require further research on a wider variety of species. We examined the effects of potential alarm cues on behaviour of the habitat-forming sea urchin Evechinus chloroticus (F. Echinometridae) on fished rocky reefs in northeastern New Zealand, where predators are uncommon and the sea urchins form barrens. Exposed E. chloroticus (i.e., those not in crevices) rapidly fled from injured conspecifics within a 1-m radius of the cue, but showed no apparent reaction to injured sea urchins belonging to another family (Centrostephanus rodgersii; F. Diadematidae), diced pilchards, or the disturbance caused by fish attracted to the cues. Densities of exposed sea urchins in an area containing injured conspecifics did not return to control values for at least 20 h, while cryptic individuals remained crevice-bound when injured conspecifics were nearby. Injured conspecifics thus provide a strong, albeit localised, cue for E. chloroticus. By restricting sea urchins to crevices where they have a reduced impact on living kelp, this non-consumptive effect may complement the lethal effects of predation in marine reserves where populations of predators such as rock lobsters and large fish are allowed to recover from overharvesting by humans, thereby reinforcing the trophic cascade initiated by those predators.