, Volume 107, Issue 4, pp 560-567

Top-down impact through a bottom-up mechanism: the effect of limpet grazing on growth, productivity and carbon allocation of Zostera marina L. (eelgrass)

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Abstract

The unusual appearance of a commensal eelgrass limpet [Tectura depicta (Berry)] from southern California at high density (up to 10 shoot−1) has coincided with the catastrophic decline of a subtidal Zostera marina L. meadow in Monterey Bay, California. Some commensal limpets graze the chloroplast-rich epidermis of eelgrass leaves, but were not known to affect seagrass growth or productivity. We evaluated the effect on eelgrass productivity of grazing by limpets maintained at natural densities (8±2 shoot−1) in a natural light mesocosm for 45 days. Growth rates, carbon reserves, root proliferation and net photosynthesis of grazed plants were 50–80% below those of ungrazed plants, but biomass-specific respiration was unaffected. The daily period of irradiance-saturated photosynthesis (H sat) needed to maintain positive carbon balance in grazed plants approached 13.5 h, compared with 5–6 h for ungrazed plants. The amount of carbon allocated to roots of ungrazed plants was 800% higher than for grazed plants. By grazing the chlorophyll-rich epidermis, T. depicta induced carbon limitation in eelgrass growing in an other-wise light-replete environment. Continued northward movement of T. depicta, may have significant impacts on eelgrass production and population dynamics in the northeast Pacific, even thought this limpet consumes very little plant biomass. This interaction is a dramatic example of top-down control (grazing/predation) of eelgrass productivity and survival operating via a bottom-up mechanism (photosynthesis limitation).