A stable isotopic study to determine carbon and nitrogen cycling in a disturbed southern Californian forest ecosystem

JE Duffy
AM Harvilicz

Abstract

Small, grazing invertebrates often benefit seagrasses by cropping their epiphytic algal competitors. Yet predictive relations between grazer abundance and seagrass performance are elusive, in significant part because of poorly understood diversity in mesograzer feeding biology. We conducted experiments in eelgrass Zostera marina microcosms to explore how differences in feeding between 2 common grazing amphipod taxa affected accumulation and species composition of epiphytes on eelgrass, as well as amphipod population growth, competition and production, over a 4-week period in summer. Gammarus mucronatus and ampithoids (a mixture of Cymadusa compta and Ampithoe longimana) were stocked, singly and in combination, along with a grazer-free control treatment. Amphipod population growth rates indicated that the 2 taxa competed for a common limiting resource, presumably periphyton, which was essentially eliminated in all grazer treatments. Final abundances of both amphipod taxa were 53 to 68% lower in treatments where the other grazer was present than in single-species grazer treatments. A common carrying capacity was also indicated by the nearly identical final biomass of amphipods across treatments, despite 2-fold. variation in initial amphipod densities. These results support the hypothesis that the 2 amphipod taxa are roughly equivalent in terms of resource requirements and production rates. Despite this equivalence, subtle differences in diet breadth between amphipod taxa translated into substantial differences in biomass and composition of the fouling assemblage among treatments. Whereas grazer-free eelgrass became heavily fouled with periphyton and tunicates, eelgrass exposed to G. mucronatus alone was overgrown by the red alga Polysiphonia harveyi, which reached a biomass equal to the total fouling mass of grazer-free controls. P. harveyi was nearly absent from all other treatments. In contrast, eelgrass with ampithoids was virtually devoid of all fouling material. Thus, similar mesograzer species can have markedly different impacts on fouling assemblages, and these occur despite strong similarity in grazer energetics and primary food sources. Our results may help to reconcile evidence of diet overlap and diffuse competition among mesograzer species with the different feeding preferences and community impacts shown for several mesograzers in experimental studies.