Vermetid gastropods reduce foraging by herbivorous fishes on algae on coral reefs.
Vermetid gastropods have the potential to reduce foraging by herbivorous fishes on algae on coral reefs because they produce mucous nets that cover the surfaces of coral skeletons, potentially inhibiting foraging by fishes. We assessed this possibility using both observational and experimental approaches in Moorea, French Polynesia. Foraging rates of herbivorous fishes (total number of bites by all species per minute) were recorded in plots that varied naturally in the cover of vermetid mucous nets. This study, done at six sites, revealed that foraging on algal turf declined with increasing cover of vermetid mucous nets, ranging from ~2 to 22 bites m-2 min-1 at 0 % coverage to 0–5 bites m-2 min-1 at 100 % coverage. The magnitude of this effect of vermetid nets varied among microhabitats (high, mid, and low bommies) and sites, presumably due to variation in the intensity of herbivory. Experimental removal of vermetid mucous nets from plots more than doubled the foraging intensity on turf algae relative to when vermetid nets were present at high (>=70 %) cover. Our results indicate that algal turf on coral reefs may benefit from associational refuge from grazing provided by vermetid gastropods, which might in turn harm corals via increased competition with algal turf.