Marine Biology

, Volume 156, Issue 6, pp 1255–1263 | Cite as

Differences in abalone growth and morphology between locations with high and low food availability: morphologically fixed or plastic traits?

  • T. M. SaundersEmail author
  • S. D. Connell
  • S. Mayfield
Original Paper


Many species of sedentary marine invertebrates exhibit large spatial variation in their morphology, which allow them to occupy a broad geographic distribution and range of environmental conditions. However, the detection of differences in morphology amongst variable environments cannot determine whether these differences represent a plastic response to the local environment, or whether morphology is genetically fixed. We used a reciprocal transplant experiment to test whether ‘stunted’ blacklip abalone (Haliotis rubra) are the result of a plastic response to the environment or fixed genetic trait. Furthermore, we related environmental factors, that affect food availability (density of abalone, water movement, algal cover and reef topography), to differences in growth and morphology. Morphological plasticity was confirmed as the mechanism causing morphological variation in H. rubra. Individuals transplanted to sites with ‘non-stunted’ H. rubra grew significantly faster when compared to stunted controls, whilst individuals transplanted to stunted sites grew significantly slower compared to non-stunted controls. The growth response was greater for individuals transplanted from ‘non-stunted’ to ‘stunted’ sites, suggesting that the environmental stressors in morphologically ‘stunted’ habitat are stronger compared to locations of faster growing morphology. We propose that these differences are related to resource availability whereby low algal cover and topographic simplicity results in stunted populations, whereas high algal abundance and topographic complexity results in non-stunted populations.


Shell Length Native Site Plastic Response Shell Height Algal Cover 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We would like to thank Associate Professor Andy Davis, Dr. Tim Ward, Erin Sautter and Ian Carlson for commenting on previous drafts of this article. We would also like to thank Andrew Hogg for extensive assistance with field and laboratory work and Neal Chambers, Dan Gorman, Kylie Howard, Alan Jones and David Sturges for assistance with diving. SARDI aquatic sciences provided funds for this research.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SARDI Aquatic SciencesHenley BeachAustralia
  2. 2.Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, DP418, School of Earth and Environmental SciencesThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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