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Ecology. 2007 Apr;88(4):853-63.

Regulation of intertidal food webs by avian predators on New England rocky shores.

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  • 1Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Box G-W, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island 02912, USA. julie.ellis@tufts.edu


Although there is a large body of research on food webs in rocky intertidal communities, most of the emphasis has been on the marine benthic components. Effects of avian predation on highly mobile predators such as crabs, remains practically unstudied in rocky shore ecosystems. The crab, Cancer borealis, is an important component of the diet of gulls (Larus marinus, L. argentatus) at the Isles of Shoals, Maine, USA. C. borealis prey include the predatory gastropod Nucella lapillus L., the herbivore Littorina littorea, and mussels Mytilus edulis L. We hypothesized that gulls reduce abundance of C. borealis in the low intertidal and shallow subtidal, thereby allowing C. borealis prey to persist in high numbers. A study of crab tidal migration showed that C. borealis density nearly doubled at high tide compared to low tide; thus, crabs from a large subtidal source population migrate into the intertidal zone during high tides and either emigrate or are removed by gulls during low tides. Results from a small-scale (1 m2) predator caging experiment in the low intertidal zone indicated that enclosed crabs significantly reduced L. littorea abundance when protected from gull predation. In a much larger-scale gull exclusion experiment, densities of C. borealis increased significantly during low and high tides in exclosures relative to the controls. C. borealis density was inversely correlated with changes in the abundance of two mesopredators Carcinus maenas and Nucella lapillus, and with the space-occupier M. edulis. There was a similar negative correlation between abundance of C. borealis and the change in abundance of the herbivore L. littorea, but the trend was not significant. Mortality of tethered L. littorea was associated with C. borealis density across sites. However, preferred algae did not change in response to L. littorea density during the experiment. Thus, we found suggestive, but not conclusive, evidence for a three-level cascade involving gulls, crabs, and L. littorea. Our studies strongly suggest that gulls, as apex predators, generate three-level trophic cascades in rocky intertidal food webs by preventing the highly mobile subtidal predator, C. borealis, from establishing substantial populations in the low-mid intertidal zone thereby indirectly enhancing densities of two key mesopredators (N. lapillus, Carcinus) and blue mussels (M. edulis).

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