Journal of Applied Phycology

, Volume 18, Issue 3–5, pp 505–519 | Cite as

Long Term Variability in the Structure of Kelp Communities in Northern Chile and the 1997–98 ENSO

  • Julio A. Vásquez
  • J. M. Alonso Vega
  • Alejandro H. Buschmann


This is the first study on the south eastern Pacific coast of South America which details long term, interannual variability in the structure of subtidal rocky-bottom kelp-dominated communities before, during, and after the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event of 1997–1998 in northern Chile (23S). The temporal patterns of the main components of these ecosystems, which included Macrocystisintegrifolia, Lessonia trabeculata, echinoids and asteroids, were evaluated seasonally between 1996 and 2004. M. integrifolia demonstrated high interannual variability in temporal patterns of abundance. The 1997–1998 ENSO did not significantly modify the temporal patterns of Macrocystis, although local extinction of M. integrifolia beds occurred during negative thermal anomalies in 1999–2000 (La Niña event), facilitating the establishment of urchin dominated “barren grounds”. The abundance of Lessonia trabeculata showed little temporal variability, and this species dominated the deeper regions of the kelp assemblage (8–13 m depth).

The structure of the kelp communities in the study area is regulated by a trophic cascade which modulates alternation between kelp dominated areas and sea urchin barrens. In this context, frequent and intense upwelling of cold water high in nutrients favors the establishment and persistence of kelp assemblages. During ENSO, coastal upwellings can mitigate superficial warming of coastal water and increase the nutrient concentration in the water column. Superficial warming during the 1997–1998 ENSO induced spawning by different species of echinoderms, which resulted in major recruitment of these species during 1999. Top-down events, such as the decrease in densities of the asteroids after the 1997–1998 ENSO event, favored increases in densities of benthic grazers, which caused significant decreases in abundance of M. integrifolia. The re-establishment of the adult fraction of the carnivore (starfish) guild coincided with a decrease in the density of sea urchins and thus re-establishment of the kelp. In the temperate south eastern Pacific, oceanographic events, which act on different spatial-temporal scales, trigger trophic cascades that act at local levels, producing interannual variability in the structure of kelp communities. On the other hand, considering the high macroinvertebrate diversity associated with kelp assemblages, the transitions between kelp-dominated areas and sea urchin barrens do not appear to significantly affect the biodiversity of these assemblages of benthic invertebrates.

Key words

Lessonia Macrocystis southern hemisphere subtidal rocky shore 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Julio A. Vásquez
    • 1
    • 2
  • J. M. Alonso Vega
    • 1
    • 2
  • Alejandro H. Buschmann
    • 3
  1. 1.Departamento de Biología Marina, Facultad de Ciencias del MarUniversidad Católica del NorteCoquimboChile
  2. 2.Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Zonas Aridas. CEAZACoquimboChile
  3. 3.I-MAR, Universidad de Los LagosPuerto MonttChile

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