Do submerged aquatic plants influence their periphyton to enhance the growth and reproduction of invertebrate mutualists?
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It has been suggested that submerged aquatic plants can influence the nutritional quality of the periphyton which grows on their surfaces, making it more nutritious for grazing invertebrates, particularly snails. In return, these grazers might preferentially feed on the periphyton and clear the plants of a potential competitor, with the plants and grazers both gaining from this mutualistic relationship. A highly replicated experiment was conducted, in which the nature of the plant (isoetid and elodeid types compared with similar-shaped inert substrata), the nutrient loading, and the influence of periphyton grazers (the bladder snail, Physa fontinalis) of similar size and history were controlled. Plant growth and survival significantly increased in the presence of the periphyton grazer. Whilst the presence of the grazers had the largest influence on periphyton abundance, nutrient availability and plant type also had effects. Plant type had little influence on the nutritional quality of the periphyton measured as carbohydrate, protein and C:N. Effects of treatment on snail growth, and the timing and extent of snail reproduction disappeared when they were compared with the quantity of periphyton available. There was no evidence of enhanced grazer success in the presence of the live plants compared with inert substrata. Although submerged plants affect the growth and reproduction of the grazers which feed on their surfaces, through differences in the amount of periphyton which grows there, we found no evidence that they manipulate the periphyton to encourage such grazers.
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