Hydrodynamic mediation of predator-prey interactions: Differential patterns of prey susceptibility and predator success explained by variation in water flow

Sean P. Powers, John N. Kittinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


In most shallow water marine systems, fluid movements vary on scales that may influence local community dynamics both directly, through changes in the abundance of species, and indirectly, by modifying important behaviors of organisms. We examined how differences in current speed affect the outcome of predator-prey interactions for two species of marine benthic predators (knobbed whelks, Busycon carica, and blue crabs, Callinectes sapidus) foraging on two common prey species (bay scallops, Argopecten irradians, and hard clams, Mercenaria mercenaria). The predators differ in their foraging strategies and prey in their potential escape responses. Predation by blue crabs, highly mobile predators/scavengers that rely upon chemical odors transported in the water column to locate prey, could be strongly affected by changes in current speed and turbulent mixing because their foraging strategy relies on a high degree of spatial integration of prey odor plumes. Whelks, slow moving, predatory gastropods that often forage with their bodies buried in the sediment, may be less susceptible to flow-induced distortion of prey odor plumes because their sluggish movements result in a high degree of temporal integration of prey odors. Bay scallops, relatively mobile bivalves capable of rapid short-distance swimming burst, and hard clams, sedentary bivalves, have been shown to respond to varying degrees to predator odors that are dispersed in the water column. Flow regime for the predator-prey experiments was manipulated in situ using large channels. Predation by blue crabs on both juvenile hard clams and bay scallops decreased with increases in water flow (0-12 vs. 0-30 cm s-1). Whelk predation on bay scallops increased with increases in water flow, whereas predation by whelks on hard clams did not differ between flow regimes. For blue crabs movement decreased at periods of high water flow. Because blue crabs locate prey through chemolocation of water-borne cues, which are diluted rapidly at higher flows, decreases in foraging may result from the inability to successfully detect prey at enhanced flows. Differences in predation by whelks could not be explained by a similar mechanism. Visual observations of foraging whelks revealed no differences in whelk behavior between the two flow regimes. The pattern of higher whelk predation on scallops at enhanced flow is likely to be related to a flow-inhibiting ability of scallops to detect predator approach. Thus, flow enhancement interferes with three of the predator-prey systems but the effect on predator success depends on whether the predator or prey is most affected.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)171-187
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 17 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Chemolocation
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Marine benthic communities
  • Predator-prey interactions
  • Water flow

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science


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