Predator density and the functional responses of coral reef fish

Predation is a key process driving coral reef fish population dynamics, with higher per capita prey mortality rates on reefs with more predators. Reef predators often forage together, and at high densities, they may either cooperate or antagonize one another, thereby causing prey mortality rates to be substantially higher or lower than one would expect if predators did not interact. However, we have a limited mechanistic understanding of how prey mortality rates change with predator densities. We re-analyzed a previously published observational dataset to investigate how the foraging response of the coney grouper (Cephalopholis fulva) feeding on the bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum) changed with shifts in predator and prey densities. Using a model-selection approach, we found that per-predator feeding rates were most consistent with a functional response that declines as predator density increases, suggesting either antagonistic interactions among predators or a shared antipredator behavioral response by the prey. Our findings suggest that variation in predator density (natural or anthropogenic) may have substantial consequences for coral reef fish population dynamics.

This paper was authored by A.C. Stier (me) and J.W. White. You can find a copy of the manuscript here, or contact me directly for a PDF.