Herbivore vs. nutrient control of marine primary producers: context-dependent effects
Burkepile, Deron E.
Hay, Mark E.
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Pervasive overharvesting of consumers and anthropogenic nutrient loading are changing the strengths of top-down and bottom-up forces in ecosystems worldwide. Thus, identifying the relative and synergistic roles of these forces and how they differ across habitats, ecosystems, or primary-producer types is increasingly important for understanding how communities are structured. We used factorial meta-analysis of 54 field experiments that orthogonally manipulated herbivore pressure and nutrient loading to quantify consumer and nutrient effects on primary producers in benthic marine habitats. Across all experiments and producer types, herbivory and nutrient enrichment both significantly affected primary-producer abundance. They also interacted to create greater nutrient enrichment effects in the absence of herbivores, suggesting that loss of herbivores produces more dramatic effects of nutrient loading. Herbivores consistently had stronger effects than did nutrient enrichment for both tropical macroalgae and seagrasses. The strong effects of herbivory but limited effects of nutrient enrichment on tropical macroalgae suggest that suppression of herbivore populations has played a larger role than eutrophication in driving the phase shift from coral- to macroalgal-dominated reefs in many areas, especially the Caribbean. For temperate macroalgae and benthic microalgae, the effects of top-down and bottom-up forces varied as a function of the inherent productivity of the ecosystem. For these algal groups, nutrient enrichment appeared to have stronger effects in high- vs. low-productivity systems, while herbivores exerted a stronger top-down effect in low-productivity systems. Effects of herbivores vs. nutrients also varied among algal functional groups (crustose algae, upright macroalgae, and filamentous algae), within a functional group between temperate and tropical systems, and according to the metric used to measure producer abundance. These analyses suggest that human alteration of food webs and nutrient availability have significant effects on primary producers but that the effects vary among latitudes and primary producers, and with the inherent productivity of ecosystems.