The role of flow velocity combined with habitat complexity as a top-down regulator in seagrass meadows

1 July 2018

Jiménez-Ramos, Rocío; Egea, Luis; Vergara, Juan José; Bouma, Tjeerd; Brun, Fernando

Large-scale losses of seagrass areas have been associated with eutrophication events, which have led to an overproduction of photosynthetic organisms including epiphytes. Grazers that feed on epiphytes can exert a significant top-down control in the system, but the effects of physical factors on grazing activity and feeding behaviour have been rarely examined. We addressed the combination of hydrodynamic regime and seagrass shoot density can alter the feeding and foraging behaviours of mesograzers. A full factorial experiment, with flow velocity (high, medium and low) and shoot density (high vs. low) as main factors, was conducted in a racetrack flume using artificial seagrass plots. The results showed that when high flow velocity conditions were combined with low shoot density, consumption of epiphytes by mesograzers was strongly reduced. In contrast, when flow velocity was low or shoot density was high, mesograzers exhibited high feeding rates and vigorous swimming behaviour. These results clearly indicate that hydrodynamic stress reduces the time that mesograzers can spend feeding, since it inhibits their swimming behaviour, and thus indirectly affecting to the density of epiphytes. Therefore, the triggering of trophic cascade effects in seagrass communities under these experimental conditions depended on the interrelationship and feedbacks among shoot density, abiotic (flow velocity) and biotic (epiphytes and mesograzers) compartments, with flow velocity exerting a top-down control on seagrass ecosystems.