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The relative importance of predation and competition in two reef fishes

Competition and predation may both strongly influence populations of reef fishes, but the importance of these processes relative to one another is poorly understood. I quantified the effects of predation and competition on the growth and survival of two temperate reef fishes, Lythrypnus dalli and Coryphopterus nicholsii, in field experiments in which I manipulated the densities of the two species and the abundance of predators (using exclosure cages) on small replicate patch reefs. I also evaluated the influence of predators on the behavior of the two species to help interpret the mechanisms of any predatory influences on growth or survival. Predation was much more important than competition (inter- or intraspecific) in Lythrypnus. For Coryphopterus, neither competition nor predation were particularly important. Behaviorally, both species responded to predators by reducing foraging rate and hiding. This altered behavior, however, had no repercussions for growth or survival of Coryphopterus. In contrast, Lythrypnus grew more slowly and suffered greater mortality when exposed to predators. Interspecific competition did not significantly influence either species. Intraspecific competition did not affect the growth of Coryphopterus, but survival tended to be lower at high densities. Growth of Lythrypnus was depressed by intraspecific competition, but survival was not, except that, in the presence of predators, survival was density dependent. In contrast to the historical emphasis placed on the role of competition, this study indicates that predation can be more important than competition in determining patterns of abundance of some reef fishes. For example, predators not only influenced foraging of both Lythrypnus and Coryphopterus, but they also reduced growth and survival of Lythrypnus, and therefore appear to help maintain the marked habitat segregation between the two species.

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