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Oecologia. 2007 Feb;151(1):161-73. Epub 2006 Nov 29.

To avoid or deter: interactions among defensive and escape strategies in sabellid worms.

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  • 1Department of Biological Sciences, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Baltimore, MD 21204-2794, USA.


Numerous studies demonstrate how sessile marine organisms utilize chemical, structural, and nutritional deterrents to persist in predator-rich environments. Little is known, however, about how mobile, more behaviorally complex species minimize predation by integrating avoidance and deterrence strategies. We investigated this using sabellid polychaete worms from the Caribbean and temperate western Atlantic. Sabellids extend their feather-like radioles beyond their protective tubes for feeding and respiration; the body remains inside the tube and the radioles retract when threatened. We used co-occurring consumers to determine the palatability of radioles and bodies for each of the eight species tested. In addition, we examined chemical or structural traits affecting palatability and evaluated predator escape traits, such as tube strength, speed of radiole retraction, completeness of retraction, and sensitivity to a nearby disturbance. All species had unpalatable radioles that were chemically or structurally defended, but only two species had unpalatable bodies. Thus, most species allocated defenses to tissues that were most exposed to predation. The two species with chemically defended bodies, Bispira brunnea and Bispira variegata, relied less on behavioral escapes than the other species. Their tubes were weak, they did not retract until disturbances were very close, and B. brunnea retracted slowly and incompletely even when touched. Other species generally had stronger tubes and/or retracted when disturbances were farther away. This trade-off of deterrence versus escape even occurred within a single species when populations differed in palatability. Populations of B.variegata from North Carolina and Georgia were chemically deterrent to both temperate and tropical consumers, while populations from Panama and Florida were palatable. The more palatable Panama population retracted in response to distant movement, while the unpalatable North Carolina population did not retract until nearly touched. Thus, most species utilize a combination of predator avoidance and deterrence strategies, but more deterrent populations of species utilized avoidance less.

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