Date Awarded

Spring 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Romuald N Lipcius

Committee Member

Rochelle D Seitz

Committee Member

Karen J McGlathery

Committee Member

Carl T Friedrichs

Committee Member

Kenneth A Moore


Habitats of Chesapeake Bay have been altered due to anthropogenic impacts and climate change. Due to these human disturbances, seagrasses have been extirpated from many areas in lower Chesapeake Bay and persisting beds face future losses as water temperatures continue to rise. Further loss of seagrass habitat will negatively impact juvenile blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) that use seagrass beds as nursery grounds. Habitat degradation allows for more successful introductions of exotic species, and the communities formed from the mixing of native and exotic species are known as emerging ecosystems. Gracilaria vermiculophylla, an exotic macroalga, may be an emerging nursery habitat for juvenile blue crabs in Chesapeake Bay; however the extent to which the alga is present and used as a nursery by juvenile blue crabs are largely unknown. I investigated algal distribution in the shallow littoral areas of the York River, a subestuary of Chesapeake Bay, over two years (2013 – 2014) and found that G. vermiculophylla presence correlated with salinity and that algal presence and biomass increased with seagrass presence, although biomass was generally low. The alga was present in areas where seagrasses have been lost, and is therefore likely providing nursery habitat in these areas of high megalopal recruitment. Benthic epifaunal communities had lower species richness and were less abundant in G. vermiculophylla relative to seagrass, while benthic infaunal communities had lower species richness but similar abundance in the alga relative to seagrass. Juvenile blue crab densities were similar in the alga and seagrass, although seagrass supported about 3 times as many first and second instar crabs than G. vermiculophylla. Young juvenile blue crabs preferred seagrass, which may be due to epifaunal prey preference, and G. vermiculophylla likely represents a secondary nursery habitat. Juvenile blue crab growth rates of crabs 15 – 50 mm carapace width were similar in the alga, native seagrass, and unvegetated habitat, indicating that growth does not drive ontogenetic shifts in habitat use by larger (20 – 30 mm carapace width) juveniles. Similar growth rates also suggest that G. vermiculophylla performs similarly to seagrass as a nursery habitat in terms of providing resources for growth. Simulations of density-dependent migration of young juvenile blue crabs between habitat types suggest that G. vermiculophylla may mediate continued seagrass loss, at least in part. Together, these results increase our understanding of an emerging Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the impacts that changes to nursery habitats have on the juvenile component of the blue crab population.



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