PREDATION STRUCTURES COMMUNITIES AT DEEP-SEA HYDROTHERMAL VENTS

Authors


Abstract

The structure and dynamics of natural communities result from the interplay of abiotic and biotic factors. We used manipulative field experiments to determine the relative roles of abiotic conditions and biotic interactions in structuring deep-sea (2500 m depth) communities along environmental gradients around hydrothermal vents of the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean (East Pacific Rise, at 9°50′ N). We tested (1) whether predation by crabs and fishes affects the recruitment of benthic species and subsequent community structure and (2) whether the effects of predation vary along the steep gradients of temperature, oxygen, sulfide, and metal concentrations near vents. Recruitment substrates (basalt cubic blocks, roughly 10 cm on a side), both uncaged and caged to exclude predators (crabs, fishes, whelks, and octopi), were deployed along a decreasing vent fluid-flux gradient. The exclusion of predators for 8 mo increased the abundance of small mobile gastropods and amphipod crustaceans but decreased the abundance of sessile invertebrates, including juvenile vestimentiferan worms, tubiculous polychaetes, and mussels. Effects of predation were strongest nearest to hydrothermal vents, where abiotic environmental conditions were most extreme but productivity and the overall abundances of benthic invertebrates and mobile predators were the greatest. Additional 5-mo experiments conducted at three different locations showed similar trends at all sites, indicating that these effects of predation on benthic community structure are repeatable. Stomach-content analyses of the most abundant predators found at vents indicated that the zoarcid fish (Thermarces cerberus) primarily feeds on the vent snail Cyathermia naticoides, the limpet Lepetodrilus elevatus, and the amphipod crustacean Ventiella sulfuris, the very species that showed the greatest increase following predator exclusion. In contrast, brachyuran (Bythograea thermydron) and galatheid (Munidopsis subsquamosa) crab stomachs did not contain small mobile grazers, and crabs presented with arrays of the most common vent invertebrate species preferred mussels and vestimentiferans over limpets. Our results indicate that predation by large mobile predators influences the structure of hydrothermal vent communities, directly by reducing the abundance of gastropod prey species, and indirectly by reducing gastropod grazing and by bulldozing of recruits of sessile invertebrates.

Ancillary