Separate and Interactive Effects of Consumers and Nutrient Enrichment on the Structure of Benthic Marine Communities
Burkepile, Deron E.
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Determining the relative roles of top-down vs. bottom-up forces in controlling the structure of ecological communities is of primary importance because anthropogenic nutrient loading, overharvesting of consumers, and potential interactions of these forces are pervasively changing ecosystems throughout the world. Here I use both field experimentation and meta-analyses to investigate the role of predators in controlling community composition, the relative roles of herbivores vs. nutrient enrichment in controlling the abundance of benthic primary producers, and the influence of herbivore diversity on the community structure of coral reefs. On a coral reef in the Florida Keys, I showed that release from predation by large fishes and invertebrates via exclusion cages allowed population increases in the gorgonian-eating gastropod Cyphoma gibbosum which increased predation rates on gorgonian corals. To directly address the relative roles of top-down and bottom-up forces in controlling primary producers in benthic marine habitats, I used factorial meta-analysis of 54 field experiments that orthogonally manipulated herbivore pressure and nutrient loading to quantify the effects of consumers and nutrient enrichment on community structure. The relative effects of herbivores vs. nutrient enrichment were context dependant, varying with latitude, the type of primary producer, and the nutrient status of the system. To address the influence of herbivore diversity on the community structure of Caribbean coral reefs, I used manipulative field experiments over two years to show that a Caribbean reef changes dramatically as a function of herbivorous fish diversity. The effects of herbivore diversity on community structure were strong in both years of the experiment due to different diet preferences among herbivores. Higher herbivore diversity suppressed macroalgal abundance, increased abundance of crustose coralline algae, reduced coral mortality, and increased coral growth when compared to treatments with lower herbivore diversity. Complementary feeding by different fishes drove these patterns because macroalgae were unable to effectively deter feeding by fishes with different attack strategies. Thus, herbivore diversity appears to play an important role in the healthy function of coral reef ecosystems via complementary feeding of different herbivore species.