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I introduced a weighted index of interspecific resource overlap in the previous post. The overlap is measured as the number of prey resources shared by two species, as indicated in a food web network (or more properly, its adjacency matrix). The index is the ratio of the squared overlap to the product of the in-degree of the two species:
C_{mn} = \frac{I_{mn}^{2}}{k_{m}k_{m}}
where C is the index for species m and n, I is the resource overlap, and k is the in-degree of a species. The index is symmetric for the species, equals 1 for a species compared to itself, and will also equal 1 if two species share identical prey and are of the same in-degree. Note that C falls short of a measure of interspecific competition in the absence of crucial demographic data about both species, as well as the strengths of interaction with prey.

So what can you do with this? Lots I think, but here’s something that we’ve been looking at. The first figure plots the ranked C values for the Caribbean reef shark, Carcharhinus perezi, versus all other species (or guilds) in the Cayman Islands food web, including invertebrate taxa. C is zero, or near zero, for many of those comparisons, because most nodes in the web share no or few prey resources with the shark. Note that the shape of the plot reflects this with its very long, flat tail. C rises sharply for highly ranked comparisons (left end of plot), indicating that the shark’s resource use overlaps with very few species, but when there is overlap, it is distinctly greater than most of the other comparisons. The red symbol is the species with which there is greatest overlap, the Yellowfin grouper, Mycteroperca venenosa. Does this indicate potentially significant competition between these two species? That’s difficult to tell from a single set of C values, so we’ll turn to the comparative method.

The second plot is also of ranked C values, but this time for the large Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus. Note two things right away. First, highly ranked C values are much larger than they are for the shark, indicating greater resource overlap between the grouper and a number of other species than there is for the shark. Second, the shapes of the plots are quite different! Whereas for the shark there are a few strong overlaps and a majority of weak ones, the grouper has strong overlap with a large number of species. In fact, the overlap between the shark and the Yellowfin grouper would only rank around 60 for the Nassau grouper! Things are certainly busier for the Nassau grouper. By the way, the most highly ranked overlapping species with the Nassau grouper is the gray snapper, Lutjanus griseus.

I find it fascinating that two large, and high trophic level predators on the reef exist under such different conditions of overlapping resource use. One very important thing to keep in mind, however, is that our food web reflects the (current) rarity of other large sharks on the Cayman reefs, and the situation could well be quite different where some of those species are present. Furthermore, as explained before, the reef food webs omit a fair number of species because the available trophic data are simply insufficient. And finally, I have to plug my invertebrate friends here, stating that I look forward to doing this sort of analysis on some of the very rich and functionally diverse molluscan and crustacean clades!