The rate of species loss is increasing on a global scale and predators are most at risk from human-induced extinction. The effects of losing predators are difficult to predict, even with experimental single species removals, because different combinations of species interact in unpredictable ways. We tested the effects of the loss of groups of common predators on herbivore and algal assemblages in a model benthic marine system. The predator groups were fish, shrimp and crabs. Each group was represented by at least two characteristic species based on data collected at local field sites. We examined the effects of the loss of predators while controlling for the loss of predator biomass. The identity, not the number of predator groups, affected herbivore abundance and assemblage structure. Removing fish led to a large increase in the abundance of dominant herbivores, such as Ampithoids and Caprellids. Predator identity also affected algal assemblage structure. It did not, however, affect total algal mass. Removing fish led to an increase in the final biomass of the least common taxa (red algae) and reduced the mass of the dominant taxa (brown algae). This compensatory shift in the algal assemblage appeared to facilitate the maintenance of a constant total algal biomass. In the absence of fish, shrimp at higher than ambient densities had a similar effect on herbivore abundance, showing that other groups could partially compensate for the loss of dominant predators. Crabs had no effect on herbivore or algal populations, possibly because they were not at carrying capacity in our experimental system. These findings show that contrary to the assumptions of many food web models, predators cannot be classified into a single functional group and their role in food webs depends on their identity and density in 'real' systems and carrying capacities.
ASJC Scopus subject areas