- Matitime Studies Program, Williams College-Mystic Seaport, 06355, Mystic, Connecticut, USA
The common Caribbean starfish Oreaster reticulatus (Linnaeus) feeds on sponges by everting its stomach onto a sponge and digesting the tissue, leaving behind the sponge skeleton. In the San Blas Islands, Republic of Panama, 54.2% of the 1549 starfish examined from February 1987 to June 1990 at eight sites were feeding, and 61.4% of these were feeding on sponges, representing 51 species. Sponges were fed on disproportionately heavily in comparison to their abundance, which was only 9.7% of available prey. In feeding choice experiments, 736 pieces of 34 species of common sponges from a variety of shallow-water habitats, and also 9 ind of a coral, were offered to starfish in individual underwater cages. Acceptance or rejection of sponge species was unambiguous for 31 of the 34 species, and there was a clear relationship between sponge acceptability and sponge habitat. Starfish ate 16 of 20 species that normally grow only on the reefs, but only 1 of 14 species that live in the seagrass meadows and rubble flats surrounding the reefs. The starfish live in the seagrass meadows and rubble flats, and avoid the reefs, and so the acceptable reef sponges are generally inaccessible until a storm fragments and transports them into starfish habitat. After Huricane Joan washed fragments of reef sponges into a seagrass meadow in October 1988, starfish consumed the edible species. When the seagrass meadow was experimentally seeded with tagged reef sponge fragments in June 1994, O. reticulatus consumed edible species and accumulated in the area seeded. Reef sponges that were living in a seagrass meadow, from which O. reticulatus had been absent for at least 4 yr (from 1978 to 1982), were eliminated when the starfish migrated into the area, and the sponges have been unable to recolonize up to June 1994. O. reticulatus feeding and habitat preferences appear to restrict distributions of many Caribbean reef sponge species to habitats without O. reticulatus and may have exerted significant selective pressure on defences of those sponges that live in O. reticulatus habitats.
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