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Sponges facilitate primary producers in a Bahamas seagrass system


Seagrass beds are important coastal ecosystems worldwide that are shaped by facilitative interactions. Consequently, it is important to identify which taxa facilitate seagrasses. In other ecosystems, sponges contribute to the maintenance of diverse and productive systems through their facilitation of foundation species (e.g., mangroves) and the retention and recycling of energy and nutrients. Sponges are common in tropical and subtropical seagrass beds, yet we know little about how their presence impacts these communities. Here, we examine the impact of the sponge Ircinia felix on primary producers in a Thalassia testudinum dominated seagrass bed using a long-term field experiment in The Bahamas. We transplanted live sponges into the center of 5 × 5 m plots and monitored the response of seagrasses and macroalgae. Sponge presence increased seagrass nutrient content and growth, as well as the abundance of macroalgae and non-dominant seagrass species (Syringodium filiforme and Halodule wrightii). These changes were not seen in the control (unmanipulated) or structure (where we placed a polypropylene sponge replica) plots. We conclude that I. felix facilitates seagrass bed primary producers in oligotrophic systems, likely due to nutrients supplied by the sponge. Our study shows that sponges can have a positive influence on seagrass bed foundation species. Since recent theoretical work emphasizes the potential for facilitative interactions involving foundation species to be destabilized in the face of anthropogenic change, further work, is needed to understand how this facilitation impacts the stability of seagrass beds in areas where human activities have increased ambient nutrient levels.

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We would like to thank Friends of the Environment (NGO, Abaco, The Bahamas), Diane Claridge and Charlotte Dunn for their logistical support, Erik Archer, Elizabeth Whitman, and Ryann Rossi for their assistance in the field, and Katie Lewia and Jillian Tucker for their assistance in the lab, and the reviewers for their help improving this manuscript. This work was supported by donations from Win and Tana Archer, North Carolina State University, and NSF OCE 1405198.


This work was supported by North Carolina State University, NSF OCE 1405198 to Craig Layman, and donations from Win and Tana Archer.

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SKA and CAL conceived and designed the experiment. SKA conducted data collection. SKA, PAE, and FMC analyzed the data. All authors were involved in the writing and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Stephanie K. Archer.

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Archer, S.K., English, P.A., Campanino, F.M. et al. Sponges facilitate primary producers in a Bahamas seagrass system. Mar Biol 168, 162 (2021).

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  • The Bahamas
  • Facultative Species Interaction
  • Facilitation
  • Nutrient transfer
  • Porifera
  • Seagrass