Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


J. Emmett Duffy


Anthropogenic stressors are increasingly changing conditions in coastal areas and impacting important habitats. But, when multiple stressors act simultaneously, their effects on ecosystems become more difficult to predict. In Chesapeake Bay, USA, predictions suggest that anthropogenic stressors from climate change, such as warming temperatures, may increase the frequency and severity of storm events, leading to increased freshwater, nutrient, and sediment inputs. Coastal development, another source of anthropogenic stressors, continues to increase with growing coastal populations, and may lead to altered sediment characteristics, habitat fragmentation, altered food webs, and loss of vegetated habitats. Community processes may interact with stressors, for example, immigration of propagules between habitat patches may alter diversity, and modify community response to stressors. Changes in biodiversity might alter ecosystem functioning and services, but diverse ecosystems may be more stable especially in the face of multiple stressors. Many habitats are vulnerable to anthropogenic stressors, including seagrass systems, which provide many valuable ecosystem services. Understanding how multiple stressors and community processes interact now is key to maintaining ecosystem services in the future. Using a model seagrass (Zostera marina) system, I tested the effects of multiple stressors and their interactions with crustacean grazer immigration and diversity on ecosystem properties in a series of fully-factorial mesocosm experiments. I found that despite grazer species having varied responses to individual stressors, grazing pressure was largely maintained in spite of multiple stressors. More diverse grazer assemblages generally stabilized epiphytic algal biomass in the face of stressors, thereby increasing the resistance stability of this important component of the fouling community. Immigration of crustacean grazers did not interact significantly with stressors, and had little effect overall except to increase grazer biomass. Stressors generally reduced primary producer biomass, although in some cases they favored epiphytic algae. Generally, I did not find interactions among stressors and grazer immigration or diversity, even though diverse grazer assemblages stabilized epiphytic algal biomass. to assess potential impacts of coastal development, I surveyed twenty seagrass beds in lower Chesapeake Bay, VA and assessed local shoreline development effects on adjacent seagrass beds. I sampled primary producers, consumers, water quality, and sediment characteristics in seagrass beds, and characterized development along the adjacent shoreline. I found that development significantly affected sediment characteristics, while epifaunal and epiphytic algal biomass was significantly higher on the Western versus the Eastern side of the bay. Grazer and predator biomass did not differ with either development or bay region. Thus, in seagrass communities, various factors appear to drive sediment and biological community properties on different spatial scales. This may be an important consideration for management, because efforts that incorporate spatial scales of ecosystem processes will likely have more impact. Overall, these results suggest that stressor impacts in seagrass ecosystems generally do not interact but are sometimes context specific, while grazer diversity may have a limited but potentially important role in buffering certain ecosystem properties again stressors. Different factors appear to influence ecosystem properties at various spatial scales, an important consideration for predicting future impacts of multiple anthropogenic stressors in submerged vegetated systems.



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