A Field Test of Threat Sensitivity in a Marine Gastropod

Anim Behav. 1997 Nov;54(5):1053-62. doi: 10.1006/anbe.1997.0488.


In the Mingan Islands, the whelk Buccinum undatum displays defensive manoeuvres to both contact and water-borne chemical cues from the predatory asteroid Leptasterias polarisIn spite of this, whelks occasionally aggregate in great numbers near L. polaris while it is ingesting a prey; they then attempt to steal food from their predator and also wait for leftovers. In this study, the response of whelks in different types of encounters with L. polaris was examined to test the hypothesis that whelks are sensitive to the magnitude of the threat their predator represents. In a field experiment, whelks consistently fled both non-feeding and feeding L. polaris (asteroids used were consuming small prey items that were unlikely to provide food for whelks). When current flow was stable, whelks fled more directly down current and more frequently displayed violent defensive behaviours, in response to non-feeding L. polariswhich presented a higher risk, than in response to feeding asteroids (lower risk; 47% versus 2%). Consequently, whelks tested with non-feeding asteroids more rapidly distanced themselves from the predators than did whelks tested with feeding asteroids. In a field survey, there were more active whelks in the vicinity of cruising (higher risk) than stationary (lower risk) L. polaris (53% versus 14%). Among those whelks that were active, defensive behaviour patterns such as shell rocking and leaping escape movements were frequently shown by whelks near cruising predators (69%), but never by whelks near stationary predators (0%). The discriminative capabilities apparent in these results are likely to be adaptive, because they enable whelks to limit the cost of escape responses while still keeping predation risk low, and also because they facilitate a close association with L. polaris from which the whelks receive feeding benefits.Copyright 1997 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour1997The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour