Long-Term Field Study Reveals Subtle Effects of the Invasive Alga Sargassum muticum upon the Epibiota of Zostera marina
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Invasive species can alter coastal ecosystems both directly, e.g. through competition for substratum and nutrients, and indirectly. Indirect effects may be mediated by creation of dissimilar or inimical habitats, changes in predator and/or prey assemblages, alterations in associated biota, and perturbations of water movement and thermal regimes. Previous studies have shown that invasive algae can modify native habitat architecture, disrupt intricately linked food webs and alter epibiotic assemblages. In the UK, the seagrass Zostera marina supports a diverse epibiotic assemblage, influencing key factors such as sediment dynamics, depositional regime and trophic linkages. Increasing encroachment of the invasive alga Sargassum muticum into seagrass meadows changes the physical and chemical characteristics of the local environment and creates the potential for changes in the epibionts associated with the seagrass blades, threatening the integrity of the seagrass ecosystem. We investigated the effects of S. muticum invasion upon the epibiota of Z. marina in a drowned river valley in SW England seasonally from spring to autumn over four years in an in-situ manipulative experiment, comparing permanent quadrats with and without artificially introduced S. muticum. Epibiota were weighed, identified to the most detailed operational taxonomic unit (OTU) possible, and unitary organisms were enumerated. Multivariate PERMANOVA+ analysis revealed significant differences in epibiont assemblages between Sargassum treatments. Linear mixed effects models indicated that differences in epibiota assemblage composition were not reflected as significant differences in mean biomass per sample, or number of epibiont OTUs per sample. We conclude that S. muticum invasion into Z. marina meadows may significantly alter the species composition and abundance distribution of epibiotic assemblages found on the blades of the seagrass. Thus S. muticum invasion could have more wide-reaching effects on processes within coastal ecosystems than predicted purely by direct effects.
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