Artificial habitats host elevated densities of large reef-associated predators
Large predators play important ecological roles, yet many are disproportionately imperiled. In marine systems, artificial reefs are often deployed to restore degraded reefs or supplement existing reefs, but it remains unknown whether these interventions benefit large predators. Comparative field surveys of thirty artificial and natural reefs across ~200 km of the North Carolina, USA coast revealed large reef-associated predators were more dense on artificial than natural reefs. This pattern was associated with higher densities of transient predators (e.g. jacks, mackerel, barracuda, sharks) on artificial reefs, but not of resident predators (e.g., grouper, snapper). Further analyses revealed that this pattern of higher transient predator densities on artificial reefs related to reef morphology, as artificial reefs composed of ships hosted higher transient predator densities than concrete reefs. The strength of the positive association between artificial reefs and transient predators increased with a fundamental habitat trait–vertical extent. Taller artificial reefs had higher densities of transient predators, even when accounting for habitat area. A global literature review of high trophic level fishes on artificial and natural habitats suggests that the overall pattern of more predators on artificial habitats is generalizable. Together, these findings provide evidence that artificial habitats, especially those like sunken ships that provide high vertical structure, may support large predators.