Cascading predator effects in a Fijian coral reef ecosystem

Last modified: 
December 7, 2017 - 3:24pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2017
Date published: 12/2017
Authors: Douglas Rasher, Andrew Hoey, Mark Hay
Journal title: Scientific Reports
Volume: 7
Issue: 1

Coral reefs are among Earth’s best-studied ecosystems, yet the degree to which large predators influence the ecology of coral reefs remains an open and contentious question. Recent studies indicate the consumptive effects of large reef predators are too diffuse to elicit trophic cascades. Here, we provide evidence that such predators can produce non-consumptive (fear) effects that flow through herbivores to shape the distribution of seaweed on a coral reef. This trophic cascade emerged because reef topography, tidal oscillations, and shark hunting behaviour interact to create predictable “hot spots” of fear on the reef where herbivores withhold feeding and seaweeds gain a spatial refuge. Thus, in risky habitats, sharks can exert strong ecological impacts even though they are trophic generalists that rarely feed. These findings contextualize the debate over whether predators influence coral reef structure and function and move us to ask not if, but under what specific conditions, they generate trophic cascades.

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