Food web interactions along seagrass–coral reef boundaries: Effects of piscivore reductions on cross-habitat energy exchange
Faculty of Computing, Health and Science
School of Natural Sciences
Although early studies qualitatively documented the importance of cross-habitat energy transfers from seagrasses to coral reefs, such exchanges have yet to be quantified. Empirical evidence suggests that grazing by reef-associated herbivores along the coral reef–seagrass interface can be intense (e.g. conspicuous presence of bare-sand ‘halos’ surrounding coral reefs). This evidence must be interpreted with caution, however, as most of it comes from areas that have experienced sustained, intense overfishing. To quantify the impacts of piscivore removal on cross-habitat energy exchange at the coral reef–seagrass interface, we compared grazing intensity along fished and no-take reefs in the upper and lower Florida Keys. Using visual census techniques and direct measures of seagrass grazing, we documented the impacts of piscivore density on herbivory along the seagrass–coral reef interface. Grazing rates were greater than observed seagrass (Thalassia testudinum) production near reefs in the upper Keys, but less than 48% of production in the lower Keys. Analyses showed that these large differences were not related to regional differences in either herbivore density or species composition. Seagrass biomass was also lower near reefs in the upper Keys, where estimates of grazing were highest. Piscivores were dominated by transient predators (jacks and barracudas) whose densities varied with region and distance from reef, but not with protection from fishing. A nonsignificant negative correlation between great barracuda density and leaf losses from tethered shoots, coupled with the greater abundances of larger grazers near reefs, suggests that predation risk, rather than direct reductions in density, may limit grazers to intense feeding on seagrasses adjacent to reefs in the upper Keys. The large-scale variation in grazing intensity illustrates the need for more detailed quantifications of energy exchanges along the seagrass–coral reef boundary.