Virginia Institute of Marine Science
Intertidal zonation of organisms is well studied on rocky shores but less so in soft sediment communities. On rocky shores, communities are two dimensional, with biotic factors such as competition and predation setting the lower bound of a zone, whereas abiotic factors such as desiccation set the upper bound. In soft sediment communities, these patterns persist, but with a dynamic three-dimensional ecosystem occupied by mobile infaunal organisms, zonation can be more difficult to quantify and detect. Hemichordate worms, however, deposit fecal casts at the surface, which can be easily identified and counted, making them a potential model system for identifying zonation in soft-sediment systems. Here, we describe the intertidal zonation of hemichordate worms at two sites in Maine and Virginia. In Virginia, Saccoglossus kowalevskii occurs in the mid-intertidal at densities up to 500 individuals per square meter, whereas a tube-building polychaete, Spiochaetopterus oculatus, dominates the lower intertidal. In Maine, two hemichordate species, Saccoglossus bromophenolosus and Protoglossus graveolens, co-occur at densities up to 100 individuals per square meter in the mid-intertidal, whereas hermit crabs and errant polychaetes are numerically dominant in the low intertidal. Despite known chemical defenses, crustaceans readily consumed hemichordates in lab assays, although polychaetes did not. In a field tethering experiment, loss rates of hemichordate-flavored agarose pellets increased as tidal height decreased, suggesting that the lower bound of the hemichordate zone could be set by biotic forces such as crustacean predation. Additionally, a field transplant experiment found low survivorship of hemichordates transplanted to the upper intertidal, suggesting that desiccation may set their upper bound. These results are broadly consistent with prior studies of zonation in soft sediments, and expand our limited understanding of basic hemichordate ecology.
Schrage, Kharis R.; Tupik, Juselyn D.; and Allen, Jonathan D., Intertidal Zonation of Hemichordates in Soft Sediments (2021). Invertebrate Biology, 140(3).
Available for download on Monday, August 01, 2022