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Predator size‐structure and species identity determine cascading effects in a coastal ecosystem

01 Dec 2018

A field experiment in a salt marsh revealed subtle but widespread ecosystem consequences of shifting predator size‐structure. These effects were contingent upon predator species identity. As climate change and harvesting alter predator size‐structure, unanticipated ecosystem‐level consequences may result.


Cascading consequences of predator extinctions are well documented, but impacts of perturbations to predator size‐structure and how these vary across species remain unclear. Body size is hypothesized to be a key trait governing individual predators' impact on ecosystems. Therefore, shifts in predator size‐structure should trigger ecosystem ramifications which are consistent across functionally similar species. Using a US salt marsh as a model system, we tested this hypothesis by manipulating size class (small, medium, and large) and size diversity (combination of all three size classes) within two closely related and functionally similar predatory crab species over 4 months. Across treatments, predators suppressed densities of a dominant grazer and an ecosystem engineer, enhanced plant biomass, and altered sediment properties (redox potential and saturation). Over the metabolically equivalent experimental predator treatments, small size class predators had stronger average impacts on response variables, and size class interacted with predator species identity to drive engineer suppression. Within both predator species, size diversity increased cannibalism and slightly weakened the average impact. These results show that predator impacts in a salt marsh ecosystem are determined by both size class and size diversity; they also highlight that size class can have species‐dependent and response‐dependent effects, underlining the challenge of generalizing trait effects.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution