We performed over 19,000 lure-assisted, underwater visual fish census transects at over 140 shallow coastal sampling locations in the mid- eastern Adriatic sea of the Croatian mainland and islands, recording all fish taxa observed, their predatory behavior in response to the lure, and the cover of benthic habitats with which they were associated. We hypothesized that prey habitat preference was a learned or selected response to aggressive behavior by piscivorous mesopredators, and predicted that mobile prey would be spatially segregated from aggressive predators into different benthic habitats within local sampling sites. We found that aggressive piscivores were primarily wait-chase or cruise-chase mesopredators that preferentially foraged along heterogeneous habitat edges within juxtapositions of rock, unconsolidated sediment, macroalgae (Cystoseira
spp.) and seagrass (usually Posidonia oceanica
). Prey species and less aggressive piscivores avoided these heterogeneous habitats and preferred more homogeneous habitats that the aggressive predators in turn avoided. We found strong and consistent spatial segregation between aggressive predators on the one hand, and less aggressive predators and prey on the other hand. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that aggressive behavior by piscivorous species is the primary organizing force shaping assembly of fish communities at our study sites, driving preference and occupancy of heterogeneous and homogeneous benthic habitats. Management of shallow benthic resources should recognize the value of complementarity in habitats allowing coexistence of predators and prey through contrasting habitat preferences.
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