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For organisms with complex life cycles, the transition between life stages and between habitats can act as a significant demographic and selective bottleneck. In particular, competition with older and larger conspecifics and heterospecifics may influence the number and characteristics of individuals successfully making the transition. We investigated whether the availability of enemy-free space mediated the interaction between adult goldspot gobies (Gnatholepis thompsoni), a. common tropical reef fish, and juvenile conspecifics that had recently settled from the plankton. We added rocks, which provide refuge from predators, to one-half of each of five entire coral reefs in the Bahamas and measured the survival and growth of recent settlers in relation to adult goby densities. We also evaluated whether mortality was selective with respect to three larval traits (age at settlement, size at settlement, and presettlement growth rate) and measured the influence of refuge availability and adult goby density on selection intensity. Selective mortality was measured by comparing larval traits of newly settled gobies (≤ 5 postsettlement) with those of survivors (2-3 week postsettlement juveniles). We detected a negative relationship between juvenile survival and adult goby density in both low- and high-refuge habitats, though experimental refuge addition reduced the intensity of this density dependence. Juvenile growth also declined with increasing adult goby density, but this effect was similar in both low- and high-refuge habitats. Refuge availability had no consistent effect on selective mortality, but adult goby density was significantly related to the intensity of size-selective mortality: bigger juveniles were favored where adults were abundant, and smaller juveniles were favored where adults were rare. Given the typically large difference in sizes of juveniles and adults, similar stage-structured interactions may be common but underappreciated in many marine species.

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© 2009 by the Ecological Society of America