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Habitat complexity and benthic predator-prey interactions in Chesapeake Bay
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    Habitat complexity and benthic predator-prey interactions in Chesapeake Bay
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    In Chesapeake Bay, the soft-shell clam Mya arenaria (thin-shelled, deep-burrowing) exhibits population declines when predators are active, and it persists at low densities. In contrast, the hard clam Mercenaria mercenaria (thick-shelled, shallow-burrowing) has a stable population and age distribution. We examined the potential for habitat and predators to control densities and distributions of bivalves in a field caging experiment (Mya only) and laboratory mesocosm experiments (both species). In the field, clams exposed to predators experienced 76.3% greater mortality as compared to caged individuals, and blue crabs were likely responsible for most of the mortality of juvenile Mya. In mesocosm experiments, Mya had lower survival in sand and seagrass than in shell hash or oyster shell habitats. However, crabs often missed one or more prey items in seagrass, shell, and oyster shell habitats. Predator search times and encounter rates declined when prey were at low densities, likely due to the added cost of inefficient foraging; however, this effect was more pronounced for Mya than for Mercenaria. Mercenaria had higher survival than Mya in mesocosm experiments, likely because predators feeding on Mercenaria spent less time foraging than those feeding on Mya. Mya may retain a low-density refuge from predation even with the loss of structurally complex habitats, though a loss of habitat refuge may result in clam densities that are not sustainable. A better understanding of density-dependent predator-prey interactions is necessary to prevent loss of food-web integrity and to conserve marine resources.
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