The Impact of Planktivory on the Life Histories of Estuarine Crabs

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Morgan, Steven G.
Reaka, Marjorie L.
Estuarine crabs commonly display two larval dispersal patterns in which larvae are either exported from or retained within estuaries. Explanations for the disparate dispersal patterns are that larvae differ in their susceptibility to predation, which is greater within the estuary than offshore, or in their physiological tolerances to the large temperature and salinity fluctuations of the estuary. Crab larvae which are exported from the estuary survived better in stressful temperature and salinity combinations than those which are retained, and thus the physiological stress hypothesis was rejected. However, exported larvae were more vulnerable to predation by fishes and invertebrates than were retained larvae. The long spines, large body sizes and behavioral responses of retained crab larvae were more effective at deterring predation by two fishes and eleven invertebrates in the laboratory, than were the short spines and small body sizes of exported larvae. Spines generally were more effective against planktivorous fishes than against invertebrates. Spines operated by effectively increasing the size of the larvae and their unpalatability to fishes. Behavioral observations revealed that fishes repeatedly attacked zoeae, but would quickly learn to avoid the noxious prey. The armor of crab larvae enabled them to survive attacks, and fishes repeatedly attempting to swallow long-spined crab larvae frequently would die. Spines did not assist in the flotation or stabilization of crab larvae. Electivities of the three predominant fishes sampled from the Newport River estuary, North Carolina, also were greater for exported than retained species of crab larvae. Predation by larval and juvenile fishes was greater upstream compared to downstream, and greater diurnally than nocturnally. By hatching on nocturnal high tides, larvae rapidly disperse downstream where the probability of predation diminishes. Semiterrestrial crabs hatch on nocturnal spring tides to prevent stranding in tidal creeks. Thus, the hatching rhythms and dispersal patterns of crabs appear to have evolved in concert to transport larvae into coastal waters where the risk of predation is reduced, or to retain larvae within estuaries depending upon the vulnerability of the larva to predation.