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Behavioral responses across a mosaic of ecosystem states restructure a sea otter–urchin trophic cascade

December 16, 2020

Consumer and predator foraging behavior can impart profound trait-mediated constraints on community regulation that scale up to influence the structure and stability of ecosystems. Here, we demonstrate how the behavioral response of an apex predator to changes in prey behavior and condition can dramatically alter the role and relative contribution of top-down forcing, depending on the spatial organization of ecosystem states. In 2014, a rapid and dramatic decline in the abundance of a mesopredator (Pycnopodia helianthoides) and primary producer (Macrocystis pyrifera) coincided with a fundamental change in purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) foraging behavior and condition, resulting in a spatial mosaic of kelp forests interspersed with patches of sea urchin barrens. We show that this mosaic of adjacent alternative ecosystem states led to an increase in the number of sea otters (Enhydra lutris nereis) specializing on urchin prey, a population-level increase in urchin consumption, and an increase in sea otter survivorship. We further show that the spatial distribution of sea otter foraging efforts for urchin prey was not directly linked to high prey density but rather was predicted by the distribution of energetically profitable prey. Therefore, we infer that spatially explicit sea otter foraging enhances the resistance of remnant forests to overgrazing but does not directly contribute to the resilience (recovery) of forests. These results highlight the role of consumer and predator trait-mediated responses to resource mosaics that are common throughout natural ecosystems and enhance understanding of reciprocal feedbacks between top-down and bottom-up forcing on the regional stability of ecosystems.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2021
Title Behavioral responses across a mosaic of ecosystem states restructure a sea otter–urchin trophic cascade
DOI 10.1073/pnas.2012493118
Authors Joshua G Smith, Joseph Tomoleoni, Michelle M. Staedler, Sophia Lyon, Jessica Fujii, M. Tim Tinker
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PNAS
Index ID 70220479
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center

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