Temporal variation in community interfaces: kelp-bed boundary dynamics adjacent to persistent urchin barrens
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- Gagnon, P., Himmelman, J.H. & Johnson, L.E. Marine Biology (2004) 144: 1191. doi:10.1007/s00227-003-1270-x
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We examined, over 2 years, factors affecting the temporal stability of the lower limit of kelp beds (Alaria esculenta) at five subtidal sites in the Mingan Islands, northern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The position of the lower limit of the beds varied markedly among sites and over time and was largely controlled by the green sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis, which formed dense (up to 500 individuals m−2) feeding fronts at the lower edge of the beds. These aggregations advanced over the kelp most rapidly during the summer (at rates as high as 2.5 m month−1), and there appeared to be a threshold urchin biomass of ~5 kg m−2 below which the fronts could not substantially reduce the limit of the beds. The fronts consisted mainly of large individuals, whereas smaller urchins predominated in the barrens zone below the kelp beds. At one site, we recorded large seasonal shifts in overall urchin densities, with large increases and decreases during the summer and winter, respectively. An urchin exclusion experiment indicated that algal recruitment in the barrens was two orders of magnitude greater in the absence than in the presence of urchins. The kelp Agarum cribrosum greatly restricted urchin movements, and the greater temporal stability of the kelp bed at one site appeared related to the gradual replacement of Alaria esculenta in the lower kelp bed by a large stand of Agarum cribrosum. We propose that perturbations by abiotic factors (e.g., ice scouring and water motion) trigger important but localized changes in urchin densities that, in turn, largely determine the limits of kelp bed distribution in this region of the Atlantic where urchin barrens are a persistent community state.