Epibiotic mutualists alter coral susceptibility and response to biotic disturbance through cascading trait-mediated indirect interactions.
Biotic disturbances are important drivers of community structure, but interactions among community members can determine trajectories of response and recovery. On coral reefs in French Polynesia, epibiotic amphipods induce the formation of branch-like ‘‘fingers’’ on flat colonies of encrusting Montipora coral. The fingers form as coral encrusts the amphipods’ tubes and lead to significant changes in colony morphology. I tested whether the induced morphological changes affect Montipora’s susceptibility to predation by pincushion (Culcita novaeguineae) and crown-of-thorns sea stars (Acanthaster planci). Montipora with fingers were less likely to be attacked and more likely to survive attack than colonies without fingers. Furthermore, the presence of fingers altered A. planci prey preference. Sea stars preferred Montipora without fingers over other common coral genera, but preferred other genera when Montipora had fingers. Amphipods indirectly affected Montipora’s resistance and resilience to predation, and the susceptibility of other coral genera to predation, through induced morphological changes. Such trait-mediated indirect interactions likely play an important role in determining how species respond to periodic sea star outbreaks.