Turbidity interferes with foraging success of visual but not chemosensory predators

PeerJ. 2015 Sep 8:3:e1212. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1212. eCollection 2015.


Predation can significantly affect prey populations and communities, but predator effects can be attenuated when abiotic conditions interfere with foraging activities. In estuarine communities, turbidity can affect species richness and abundance and is changing in many areas because of coastal development. Many fish species are less efficient foragers in turbid waters, and previous research revealed that in elevated turbidity, fish are less abundant whereas crabs and shrimp are more abundant. We hypothesized that turbidity altered predatory interactions in estuaries by interfering with visually-foraging predators and prey but not with organisms relying on chemoreception. We measured the effects of turbidity on the predation rates of two model predators: a visual predator (pinfish, Lagodon rhomboides) and a chemosensory predator (blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus) in clear and turbid water (0 and ∼100 nephelometric turbidity units). Feeding assays were conducted with two prey items, mud crabs (Panopeus spp.) that rely heavily on chemoreception to detect predators, and brown shrimp (Farfantepenaus aztecus) that use both chemical and visual cues for predator detection. Because turbidity reduced pinfish foraging on both mud crabs and shrimp, the changes in predation rates are likely driven by turbidity attenuating fish foraging ability and not by affecting prey vulnerability to fish consumers. Blue crab foraging was unaffected by turbidity, and blue crabs were able to successfully consume nearly all mud crab and shrimp prey. Turbidity can influence predator-prey interactions by reducing the feeding efficiency of visual predators, providing a competitive advantage to chemosensory predators, and altering top-down control in food webs.

Keywords: Blue crabs; Brown shrimp; Mud crabs; Pin fish; Predator–prey interactions.

Grants and funding

This research was supported by Texas Sea Grant, Texas Research Development Fund, a Texas A & M University-Corpus Christi Faculty Enhancement Grant, the Harvey Weil Sportsman Conservationist Award, and the Ruth A. Campbell Professorship to DL Smee. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.