Marine Biology

, Volume 68, Issue 3, pp 299-319

Feeding capabilities and limitation of herbivorous molluscs: A functional group approach

  • R. S. SteneckAffiliated withMarine Systems Laboratory, Smithsonian InstitutionDepartment of Earth and Planetary Sciences, The Johns Hopkins University
  • , L. WatlingAffiliated withDepartment of Zoology and Oceanography Program, Darling Center, University of Maine

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The susceptibility of an alga to an herbivorous mollusc depends, in part, upon the size and toughness of the plant relative to the feeding ability of the mollusc. In this study, algae are subdivided into seven functional groups based on these and other physiological characteristics. Herbivorous prosobranchs and chitons are subdivided into four functional groups based on the structure of their feeding apparatus. Distinct patterns in the diets of these molluscs are evident when feeding data, based on these functional groups, are examined. Most herbivorous mollusc species eat algal forms that are either minute (i.e., micro- and filamentous algae) or very large and expansive (kelp-like or crustose algae). Algae of intermediate size (erect forms 1- to 10-cm tall) are eaten to a lesser extent, possibly because they are too large to be rasped from the substratum and too small for most herbivores to occupy. Herbivorous archaeogastropods (excluding limpets) and mesogastropods tend to eat filamentous and microscopic algal forms predominantly, whereas limpets and chitons feed on large, leathery and crustose algae. These dietary differences reflect functional differences in the feeding apparatus of these herbivore groups. Radulae of herbivorous mesogastropods function like rakes and can ingest larger, tougher algae than can radulae of nonlimpet archaeogastropods. The latter function more like brooms by sweeping the substratum broadly, but exerting little force. Limpets and chitons have superior excavating abilities because their radulae have: robust buccal muscles surrounding them, a reduced number of points of contact on the substratum, and minerally hardened teeth. The feeding apparatus of chitons is most versatile since it possesses features found in all herbivorous gastropod functional groups, and thus, it can sweep and excavate simultaneously. This functional group approach suggests various hypotheses concerning algal community structure, plant/herbivore and herbivore/herbivore interactions, the relative importance of structural defenses in algae, and the evolution of specialized grazers. These hypotheses are examined using data from published accounts.