Local Competition and Metapopulation Processes Drive Long-Term Seagrass-Epiphyte Population Dynamics

Lobelle, Delphine; Kenyon, Emma J.; Cook, Kevan J.; Bull, James C.
February 2013
PLoS ONE;Feb2013, Vol. 8 Issue 2, p1
Academic Journal
It is well known that ecological processes such as population regulation and natural enemy interactions potentially occur over a range of spatial scales, and there is a substantial body of literature developing theoretical understanding of the interplay between these processes. However, there are comparatively few studies quantifying the long-term effects of spatial scaling in natural ecosystems. A key challenge is that trophic complexity in real-world biological communities quickly obscures the signal from a focal process. Seagrass meadows provide an excellent opportunity in this respect: in many instances, seagrasses effectively form extensive natural monocultures, in which hypotheses about endogenous dynamics can be formulated and tested. We present amongst the longest unbroken, spatially explict time series of seagrass abundance published to date. Data include annual measures of shoot density, total above-ground abundance, and associated epiphyte cover from five Zostera marina meadows distributed around the Isles of Scilly, UK, from 1996 to 2011. We explore empirical patterns at the local and metapopulation scale using standard time series analysis and develop a simple population dynamic model, testing the hypothesis that both local and metapopulation scale feedback processes are important. We find little evidence of an interaction between scales in seagrass dynamics but that both scales contribute approximately equally to observed local epiphyte abundance. By quantifying the long-term dynamics of seagrass-epiphyte interactions we show how measures of density and extent are both important in establishing baseline information relevant to predicting responses to environmental change and developing management plans. We hope that this study complements existing mechanistic studies of physiology, genetics and productivity in seagrass, whilst highlighting the potential of seagrass as a model ecosystem. More generally, this study provides a rare opportunity to test some of the predictions of ecological theory in a natural ecosystem of global conservation and economic value.


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