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Eelgrass structural complexity mediates mesograzer herbivory on epiphytic algae

Voigt, Erin P., Hovel, Kevin A.
Oecologia 2019 v.189 no.1 pp. 199-209
Crustacea, Gastropoda, Zostera marina, algae, biomass, community structure, ecosystems, epiphytes, field experimentation, grazing, habitats, herbivores, predation, seagrasses, stable isotopes
Structural complexity mediates ecological processes such as predation, competition, and recruitment in marine systems, but relatively little is known about its effects on herbivory. In temperate seagrasses, such as eelgrass (Zostera marina), the primary herbivores are small crustacean and gastropod mesograzers that promote seagrass persistence by preferentially consuming competing epiphytic algae. We used a laboratory grazing experiment, a field colonization experiment, and stable isotope analysis to determine whether one component of eelgrass structural complexity, shoot density, dictates the strength of mesograzer top-down effects on epiphytic algae, and whether this is influenced by mesograzer community composition. Our results suggest that increasing structural complexity shifted eelgrass communities from a bottom-up to a top-down controlled system. In the lab, mesograzers reduced epiphyte standing stock only in high-shoot density experimental communities, though grazing impact varied among different combinations of dominant mesograzer taxa. In our field experiment, epiphyte biomass was inversely correlated with mesograzer density in high but not in low-shoot density eelgrass plots. High-shoot density plots contained lower epiphyte biomass despite housing lower densities of mesograzers, when compared to low-density plots, suggesting potential effects of mesograzer behavior, community composition, or self-shading on epiphyte growth. Our results suggest that structural complexity can strongly influence rates of top-down and bottom-up processes in eelgrass habitat, and should be incorporated into future experiments on the role of herbivores in seagrass ecosystems.