Sediments influence accumulation of two macroalgal species through novel but differing interactions with nutrients and herbivory

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Despite increasing concern that sediment loads from disturbed watersheds facilitate algal dominance on tropical reefs, little is known of how sediments interact with two primary drivers of algal communities, nutrients and herbivory. We examined the effects of sediment loads on the thalli of two increasingly abundant genera of macroalgae, Galaxaura and Padina, in a bay subject to terrestrial sediment influx in Mo’orea, French Polynesia. Field experiments examining (1) overall effects of ambient sediments and (2) interacting effects of sediments (ambient/removal) and herbivores (caged/uncaged) demonstrated that sediments had strong but opposite effects on both species’ biomass accumulation. Sediment removal increased accumulation of Padina boryana Thivy 50% in the initial field experiment but had no effect in the second; rather, in a novel interaction, herbivores overcompensated for increases in tissue nutrient stores that occurred with sediments loads, likely by preferential consumption of nutrient-rich meristematic tissues. Despite negative effects of sediments on biomass, Padina maintained rapid growth across treatments in both experiments. In contrast, positive growth in Galaxaura divaricata Kjellman only occurred with ambient sediment loads. In mesocosm experiments testing interactions of added nutrients and sediments on growth, Galaxaura grew at equivalent rates with sediments (collected from thalli on the reef) as with additions of nitrate and phosphate, suggesting sediments provide a nutrient subsidy. For Padina, however, the only effect was a 50% reduction in growth with sediment. Overall, retention of thallus sediments creates a positive feedback that Galaxaura appears to require to sustain net growth, while Padina merely tolerates sediments. These results indicate that sediments can modify nutrient and herbivore control of algae in ways that differ among species, with the potential for strong and unexpected effects on the abundance and composition of tropical reef macroalgae.


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Clausing, R.J., Bittick, S.J., Fong, C.R. et al. Sediments influence accumulation of two macroalgal species through novel but differing interactions with nutrients and herbivory. Coral Reefs 35, 1297–1309 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00338-016-1477-1