Explanations for the coexistence of multiple species from the same functional group or taxonomic clade frequently include fine-scale resource partitioning. However, despite the hypothesized importance of niche partitioning, we know relatively little about the underlying mechanisms. For example, differences in resource use may be fixed consequences of organism traits, or they may be achieved via context-dependent behaviors. In this study we investigated mechanisms of microhabitat partitioning using eight species of marine mesograzers inhabiting seagrass and algae habitats, using laboratory trials to measure microhabitat use in the presence and absence of both predators and competitors. We found clear evidence for microhabitat partitioning between the species, which account for over 60% of the mesograzers commonly found in this system and vary in both body size and the ability to build tubes on habitat substrates. Species-specific microhabitat use was poorly predicted by these two traits, but remained remarkably consistent across contexts. Habitat use was not affected by the presence of fish predators common in this system, even though predation pressure is thought to place strong constraints on microhabitat in communities of plant-associated arthropods. The presence of competing species also did not affect the relative separation of microhabitat use. Behavioral responses to potential competitors did cause significant changes in microhabitat use in all of the smallest species, but these changes did not depend on competitor identity and were relatively small compared to among-species patterns of microhabitat partitioning. The consistency of species-specific microhabitat use, regardless of the presence of predators or competitors, should make coexistence most likely among species that differ in these choices. For these species, it appears that the benefits accrued from their selected microhabitats are not affected by species interactions, or that any benefits of alternative microhabitat use are outweighed by risks associated with movement.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics