Limited change in the diversity and structure of subtidal communities over four decades
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- Elahi, R., Birkeland, C., Sebens, K.P. et al. Mar Biol (2013) 160: 3209. doi:10.1007/s00227-013-2308-3
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A unique archive of photographs from 1969 to 1974 permitted a test of the hypothesis that the diversity and composition of contemporary epilithic communities on subtidal rock walls in the San Juan Islands, WA, USA, has changed over 40 years. Notably, the richness and diversity of sessile taxa was significantly higher in 2008–2011. Furthermore, the multivariate community structure of sessile and mobile taxa differed between the historic and modern eras. Historic communities were characterized by a high percent cover of bare rock and non-calcified algal crusts, consistent with the effects of grazing by chitons and urchins. The rate of sessile community turnover, an index less susceptible to spatial sampling artifacts than richness or diversity, was not significantly different between the two eras. Together with the naturally high spatial variability in these epilithic communities, and the limited replication of historic quadrats, we interpret cautiously the data as evidence of limited change despite a clear shift in temperature and predator (fish) guild composition. The lack of substantial change in rock wall communities may be due in part to their vertical topography, which limits physical disturbance and the preemption of space by weedy algae, two processes that are often associated with “phase-shifts” in other marine ecosystems.