Aggregations of the sandy-beach isopod, Tylos granulatus: adaptation or incidental-effect?
Spatial aggregations of organisms are common in nature. Aggregations have often been thought to play important roles in mate-finding, predator avoidance, reduction of water loss, or the acquisition of food and other resources, yet few empirical studies have been done on the processes that lead to aggregation We studied aggregations of the giant isopod Tylos granulatus, which lives as a scavenger in the intertidal zone of sandy beaches on the west coast of South Africa. Individuals emerge with the receding tide leaving exit holes, then forage for about two hours before returning to the vicinity of the high-water mark where they aggregate to bury themselves, leaving behind cone-shaped mounds. Our observations showed there was no correlation between aggregations and the availability of food, and that manipulating the position of food had no effect on the aggregations. Reproduction, which is seasonal and synchronous, also seems unlikely to explain the year-round aggregations. Experiments showed T. granulatus preferentially burrows in existing holes or mounds rather than creating new ones. The advantages of this are analysed in terms of energy conservation, and as a means of reducing risks of exposure to predators or being swept away by the incoming tide. Whatever the benefit, the preferential use of existing holes can incidentally lead to aggregation, which may not itself have any adaptive function.