Strong impacts of grazing amphipods on the organization of a benthic community
Duffy, J. Emmett
Hay, Mark E.
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Large brown seaweeds dominate coastal hard substrata throughout many of the world's oceans. In coastal North Carolina, USA, this dominance by brown seaweeds is facilitated by omnivorous fishes, which feed both on red and green algae and on herbivorous amphipods that graze brown algae. When fish are removed in the field, brown seaweeds are replaced by red seaweeds, and herbivorous amphipods are more abundant. Using an array of large (4000 L) outdoor mesocosms, we tested three mechanistic hypotheses for this pattern: fish feeding facilitates brown algal dominance (1) by removing red and green algal competitors, (2) by removing amphipods and reducing their feeding on brown seaweeds, or (3) through an interaction of these mechanisms. Our experiments revealed strong impacts of both fish and amphipods, and a key role for the interaction, in structuring this community. When both fish and amphipods were removed (the latter with dilute insecticide), space was rapidly dominated and held for 17 weeks by fast-growing, primarily filamentous green algae. In contrast, when either fish, amphipods, or both were present, green algae were cropped to a sparse turf, and space was more rapidly dominated by larger macroalgae. The impacts of amphipods and fish on late-successional macroalgal assemblages were comparable in magnitude, but different in sign: red seaweeds prevailed in the amphipod-dominated treatment, whereas browns dominated in the presence of fish. Laboratory feeding assays and amphipod densities in the tanks suggested that the significant effects of amphipods were attributable largely, if not exclusively, to the single amphipod species Ampithoe longimana, which fed heavily on brown macroalgae. Our experimental removal of red and green algae failed to enhance cover of brown algae significantly; however, the latter reached substantially lower cover in the grazer-removal treatment, where green algae were very abundant, than in the fish-only treatment, where green algae were sparse. Thus, our results support the third hypothesis: fish-mediated dominance of brown algae involves both suppression of grazing amphipods and removal of algal competitors. Although collective impacts of fish and amphipods on this benthic community were generally comparable in magnitude, impacts normalized to each grazer's aggregate biomass were consistently higher for amphipods than for fish, sometimes by 1–2 orders of magnitude. Thus, the impacts of grazing amphipods (specifically A. longimana) on the benthic community were both strong and disproportionate to their biomass. These experimental results imply that grazing amphipods, which are ubiquitous in marine vegetation but poorly understood ecologically, may play important roles in the organization of benthic communities, particularly where predation pressure is low.