Bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) are known to diversify into two forms specialized for foraging on either limnetic or littoral prey. Because juvenile bluegills seek vegetative cover in the presence of largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) predators, natural selection should favor the littoral body design at size ranges most vulnerable to predation. Yet within bluegill populations, both limnetic and littoral forms occur where vegetation and predators are present. While adaptive for foraging in different environments, does habitat-linked phenotypic variation also influence predator evasiveness for juvenile bluegills? We evaluate this question by quantifying susceptibility to predation for two groups of morphologically distinct bluegills; a limnetic form characteristic of bluegills inhabiting open water areas (limnetic bluegill) and a littoral form characteristic of bluegills inhabiting dense vegetation (littoral bluegill). In a series of predation trials, we found that bluegill behaviors differed in open water habitat but not in simulated vegetation. In open water habitat, limnetic bluegills formed more dense shoaling aggregations, maintained a larger distance from the predator, and required longer amounts of time to capture than littoral bluegill. When provided with simulated vegetation, largemouth bass spent longer amounts of time pursuing littoral bluegill and captured significantly fewer littoral bluegills than limnetic fish. Hence, morphological and behavioral variation in bluegills was linked to differential susceptibility to predation in open water and vegetated environments. Combined with previous studies, these findings show that morphological and behavioral adaptations enhance both foraging performance and predator evasiveness in different lake habitats.
Additional publication details
Phenotypic variation and vulnerability to predation in juvenile bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus)