CHEMICALLY MEDIATED COMPETITION BETWEEN MICROBES AND ANIMALS: MICROBES AS CONSUMERS IN FOOD WEBS

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Abstract

Microbes are known to affect ecosystems and communities as decomposers, pathogens, and mutualists. However, they also may function as classic consumers and competitors with animals if they chemically deter larger consumers from using rich food-falls such as carrion, fruits, and seeds that can represent critical windfalls to both microbes and animals. Microbes often use chemicals (i.e., antibiotics) to compete against other microbes. Thus using chemicals against larger competitors might be expected and could redirect significant energy subsidies from upper trophic levels to the detrital pathway. When we baited traps in a coastal marine ecosystem with fresh vs. microbe-laden fish carrion, fresh carrion attracted 2.6 times as many animals per trap as microbe-laden carrion. This resulted from fresh carrion being found more frequently and from attracting more animals when found. Microbe-laden carrion was four times more likely to be uncolonized by large consumers than was fresh carrion. In the lab, the most common animal found in our traps (the stone crab Menippe mercenaria) ate fresh carrion 2.4 times more frequently than microbe-laden carrion. Bacteria-removal experiments and feeding bioassays using organic extracts of microbe-laden carrion showed that bacteria produced noxious chemicals that deterred animal consumers. Thus bacteria compete with large animal scavengers by rendering carcasses chemically repugnant. Because food-fall resources such as carrion are major food subsidies in many ecosystems, chemically mediated competition between microbes and animals could be an important, common, but underappreciated interaction within many communities.

Ancillary