Prolonged lag in population outbreak of an invasive mussel: A shifting-habitat model

Gil Rilov, Yehuda Benayahu, Avital Gasith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological invasions pose a great threat to the integrity of natural communities. Some invasive species demonstrate a population explosion shortly after arrival while in other cases a prolonged lag between arrival and population outbreak is evident. This paper describes a case of a prolonged lag and explores the possible mechanism for this lag. The Red Sea mussel Brachidontes pharaonis, a Lessepsian migrant, was first recorded in the Mediterranean seven years after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Since then it spread along the Israeli coast and as far northwest as Sicily. Studies conducted in the late 1970s, when B. pharaonis was still rare, predicted that it would not establish dense populations along the Israeli coast and would not outcompete the indigenous mussel Mytilaster minimus, although it has strong negative effects on survival and growth of the native species. It was attributed to the invader's low intrinsic rate of increase relative to that of the native species, and to strong density-independent mortality generated by exposure to high wave action and sedimentation. In contrast to these predictions, we found massive formations of B. pharaonis beds after lag of about 120 years. We looked for distributional patterns that may explain this lag and found no south-north gradient but a strong habitat-dependent colonization. Most apparent are dense B. pharaonis mussel beds (density >300 per 100cm 2) on rocky platforms where mussel beds were absent in the past. These platforms lack the vermetid rim that is typical to this formation. In platforms protected by a biogenic rim, sediment accumulation is high and perennial algae flourish. None of the mussel species form beds in such habitats. We suggest that the delayed formation of B. pharaonis beds along the Israeli coast is a consequence of a recent shift in habitat conditions on some platforms. It is possible that receding of the biogenic rim at the edge of these platforms allowed more effective washing, reduced sediment accumulation, and reduced perennial algae cover making platforms more suitable for the mussels. Lower density-independent mortality allowed B. pharaonis to dominate on such platforms over the indigenous species. On beachrock, a habitat previously dominated by M. minimus, we recorded a rapid shift in numerical domination to B. pharaonis (from 1:7 to 1.4:1 Brachidontes/Mytilaster individuals) over a period of 4 years (1995-1999). This is probably a result of saturation of the habitat by B. pharaonis recruits originating from the established populations on platforms. Salinity changes and a potential genetic shift may also have contributed to the invasive mussel outbreak.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)347-364
Number of pages18
JournalBiological Invasions
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Brachidontes pharaonis
  • Israel
  • Lessepsian migration
  • Mediterranean Sea
  • bioinvasions
  • lag-time
  • mussel
  • rocky shore

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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