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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI:

Ontogenetic patterns in juvenile blue crab density: effects of habitat and turbidity in a Chesapeake Bay tributary

A. Challen Hyman*, Grace S. Chiu, Michael S. Seebo, Alison Smith, Gabrielle G. Saluta, Romuald N. Lipcius

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Nursery habitats are characterized by favorable conditions for juveniles, including higher food availability and lower predation risk, and disproportionately contribute more individuals per unit area to adult populations compared to other habitats. However, nursery habitat inference is complicated by changes in habitat preferences with ontogeny; individuals in early-life stages frequently inhabit different habitats than older juveniles or adults. In this field experiment, we modeled the density of 4 size classes of juvenile blue crabs Callinectes sapidus based on carapace width (CW) across multiple habitats at various locations within an estuarine seascape during the blue crab recruitment season. We examined four habitat types—unstructured sand, seagrass meadows, salt marsh edges (SME), and shallow detrital habitat (SDH). Results indicated that densities of small juvenile blue crabs (≤10 mm CW) were highest in seagrass, whereas densities of larger juveniles (16–25 mm CW) were highest in SME. Although densities of juveniles declined in seagrass habitat as a function of size, densities in SME remained consistently high, suggesting that secondary dispersal to SME by smaller juveniles after settlement and recruitment in seagrass may supplement losses in SME due to mortality. Turbidity was positively correlated with densities of both size classes, although our model did not address whether this was due to top-down (refuge) or bottom-up (food availability) mechanisms. Observed patterns in size-specific habitat utilization may result from changing requirements of juvenile blue crabs with size, as animals minimize mortality-to-growth ratios. Our findings emphasize the role of both seagrass and salt marsh habitat within juvenile blue crab ontogeny and emphasize the significance of structurally complex salt marsh edge habitat in supporting juvenile blue crabs at sizes smaller than previously recognized, challenging past notions about the singular importance of seagrass habitat in this system. Our findings also underscore the need to quantify and preserve the complete chain of habitats used by juveniles.