Predator density and timing of arrival affect reef fish community assembly.
Most empirical studies of predation use simple experimental approaches to quantify the effects of predators on prey (e.g., using constant densities of predators, such as ambient vs. zero). However, predator densities vary in time, and these effects may not be well represented by studies that use constant predator densities. Although studies have independently examined the importance of predator density, temporal variability, and timing of arrival (i.e., early or late relative to prey), the relative contribution of these different predator regimes on prey abundance, diversity, and composition remains poorly understood. The hawkfish (Paracirrhites arcatus), a carnivorous coral reef fish, exhibits substantial variability in patch occupancy, density, and timing of arrival to natural reefs. Our field experiments demonstrated that effects of hawkfish on prey abundance depended on both hawkfish density and the timing of their arrival, but not on variability in hawkfish density. Relative to treatments without hawkfish, hawkfish presence reduced prey abundance by 50%. This effect increased with a doubling of hawkfish density (an additional 33% reduction), and when hawkfish arrived later during community development (a 34% reduction). Hawkfish did not affect within-patch diversity (species richness), but they increased between-patch diversity (beta) based on species incidence (22%), and caused shifts in species composition. Our results suggest that the timing of predator arrival can be as important as predator density in modifying prey abundance and community composition.