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Foraging behavior of an estuarine predator, the blue crab Callinectes sapidus in a patchy environment

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To define general principles of predator-prey dynamics in an estuarine subtidal environment, we manipulated predator density (the blue crab, Callinectes sapidus) and prey (the clam, Macoma balthica) patch distribution in large field enclosures in the Rhode River subestuary of the central Chesapeake Bay. The primary objectives were to determine whether predators forage in a way that maximizes prey consumption and to assess how their foraging success is affected by density of conspecifics. We developed a novel ultrasonic telemetry system to observe behavior of individual predators with unprecedented detail.

Behavior of predators was more indicative of optimal than of opportunistic foraging. Predators appeared responsive to the overall quality of prey in their habitat. Rather than remaining on a prey patch until depletion, predators appeared to vary their patch use with quality of the surrounding environment. When multiple (two) prey patches were available, residence time of predators on a prey patch was shorter than when only a single prey patch was available. Predators seemed to move among the prey patches fairly regularly, dividing their foraging time between the patches and consuming prey from each of them at a similar rate. That predators more than doubled their consumption of prey when we doubled the number of prey (by adding the second patch) is consistent with optimizing behaviors - rather than with an opportunistic increase in prey consumption brought about simply by the addition of more prey. Predators at high density, however, appeared to interfere with each other's foraging success, reflected by their lower rates of prey consumption.

Blue crabs appear to forage more successfully (and their prey to experience higher mortality) in prey patches located within 15–20 meters of neighboring patch, than in isolated patches. Our results are likely to apply, at least qualitatively, to other crustacean-bivalve interactions, including those of commercial interest; their quantitative applicability will depend on the mobility of other predators and the scale of patchiness they perceive.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: ( ), Email: [email protected] 2: Dept of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State Univ., Raleigh, NC 27695, USA. 3: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, 617 Contee's Wharf Road, Edgewater, MD 21037, USA.

Publication date: February 1, 2000

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