, Volume 141, Issue 2, pp 287-297

Cascading effects of hydrodynamics on an epiphyte–grazer system in intertidal seagrass beds of the Wadden Sea

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This study examines experimentally how water movement may alter epiphyte–grazer systems in intertidal seagrass beds. Field observations in the Sylt–Rømø Bay (German Wadden Sea, SE North Sea) showed that the biomass of seagrass epiphytes was highest on seagrasses exposed to water movement, whereas at sheltered sites the epiphyte cover was negligible. In contrast, the seagrass shoot density and aboveground biomass was comparably sparse and the abundance of Hydrobia ulvae was extremely low at exposed areas, but showed maximum values at sheltered seagrass beds. Cross transplantation experiments and enclosure experiments between sheltered and exposed seagrass beds showed that adhering snails were washed off from seagrasses soon after transplantation into an exposed seagrass bed, and epiphytes started to grow. After 4 weeks the epiphyte biomass was similar to the that of the adjacent exposed seagrass bed. When heavily epiphytised seagrasses were transplanted from exposed into sheltered areas, the epiphytes were completely grazed down by immigrating snails within a week. Experiments carried out by means of an in situ "three-current-flume", modifying the entire current velocity, showed that snail density was significantly negatively correlated with increasing current velocity, whereas epiphyte biomass showed a significant positive correlation with current speed. These results suggest a cascading impact of hydrodynamics on an epiphyte–grazer system in intertidal seagrass beds, by directly affecting the density of grazers and indirectly leading to enhanced epiphyte growth, thereby inhibiting seagrass development. Additionally it shows that cascading effects within the trophic web cannot only be triggered by biotic interdependencies, but can also be caused by physical factors.