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Ocean acidification outweighs nutrient effects in structuring seagrass epiphyte communities

March 16, 2014

Developing a framework for assessing interactions between multiple anthropogenic stressors remains an important goal in environmental research. In coastal ecosystems, the relative effects of aspects of global climate change (e.g. CO2 concentrations) and localized stressors (e.g. eutrophication), in combination, have received limited attention.

Using a long-term (11 month) field experiment, we examine how epiphyte assemblages in a tropical seagrass meadow respond to factorial manipulations of dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2(aq)) and nutrient enrichment. In situ CO2(aq) manipulations were conducted using clear, open-top chambers, which replicated carbonate parameter forecasts for the year 2100. Nutrient enrichment consisted of monthly additions of slow-release fertilizer, nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), to the sediments at rates equivalent to theoretical maximum rates of anthropogenic loading within the region (1.54 g N m−2 d−1 and 0.24 g P m−2 d−1).

Epiphyte community structure was assessed on a seasonal basis and revealed declines in the abundance of coralline algae, along with increases in filamentous algae under elevated CO2(aq). Surprisingly, nutrient enrichment had no effect on epiphyte community structure or overall epiphyte loading. Interactions between CO2(aq) and nutrient enrichment were not detected. Furthermore, CO2(aq)-mediated responses in the epiphyte community displayed strong seasonality, suggesting that climate change studies in variable environments should be conducted over extended time-scales.

Synthesis. The observed responses indicate that for certain locations, global stressors such as ocean acidification may take precedence over local eutrophication in altering the community structure of seagrass epiphyte assemblages. Given that nutrient-driven algal overgrowth is commonly cited as a widespread cause of seagrass decline, our findings highlight that alternate climate change forces may exert proximate control over epiphyte community structure.

Campbell JE, Fourqurean JW, 2014: Ocean acidification outweighs nutrient effects in structuring seagrass epiphyte communities, Journal of Ecology, doi:10.1111/1365-2745.12233. Article (subscription required).

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