Effects of post-settlement habitat use and biotic interactions on survival of the seagrass-associated fish red drum (Sciaenops ocellatus)
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Due to high mortality encountered by marine fish larvae during their first weeks of life, small changes in the number of individuals surviving through this period can cause large fluctuations in year-class strength. Larval Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus) are dependent upon structured estuarine habitat to avoid predation. A study of post-settlement larval Red Drum distribution in a subtropical seagrass meadow in Mission-Aransas Estuary, Texas, USA indicates that larvae settle over approximately two months. Abundance of larger settled larvae was significantly different among sites. The areas of highest larval abundance varied temporally, indicating that the entire extent of the seagrass bed is utilized. Regression analysis of abiotic environmental factors did not explain why larvae were more abundant at particular sites. To characterize the structure and variability of the fish species assemblage that Red Drum encounter upon settlement, larvae and juveniles were captured in the seagrass meadow during weekly collections. Of the 32 fish species collected, seven represented 92% of the assemblage. Multivariate species analysis indicated that collections widely separated in time and space shared the lowest Bray-Curtis similarity. Because Red Drum settle over a relatively long period and co-occur at body sizes known to cause cannibalism under laboratory conditions, I tested combinations of small and large Red Drum larvae at various field-realistic densities and at different levels of seagrass habitat structure to determine potential for cannibalism. Artificial seagrass did not protect small (5 – 6 mm SL) larvae from cannibalism, but natural dense seagrass had a protective effect relative to edge habitat. The final component of this research examined the emergent impacts of a common predator pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) on mortality and cannibalistic interactions between small and large Red Drum larvae. Both pinfish and large Red Drum larvae alone readily consumed small Red Drum in all seagrass habitat structures tested. However, the combined treatment of pinfish and large Red Drum together led to reduced mortality of small Red Drum. Predation can significantly affect Red Drum survival during the post-settlement period, and multiple predators may have a protective effect on the smallest settlers if predation pressure is re-directed towards a larger size class.