Impacts of altered physical and biotic conditions in rocky intertidal systems: implications for the structure and functioning of complex macroalgal assemblages
Thesis DisciplineBiological Sciences
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Complex biogenic habitats created by large canopy-forming macroalgae on intertidal and shallow subtidal rocky reefs worldwide are increasingly affected by degraded environmental conditions at local scales and global climate-driven changes. A better understanding of the mechanisms underlying the impacts of complex suites of anthropogenic stressors on algal forests is essential for the conservation and restoration of these habitats and of their ecological, economic and social values. This thesis tests physical and biological mechanisms underlying the impacts of different forms of natural and human-related disturbance on macroalgal assemblages dominated by fucoid canopies along the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand. A field removal experiment was initially set up to test assemblage responses to mechanical perturbations of increasing severity, simulating the impacts of disturbance agents affecting intertidal habitats such as storms and human trampling. Different combinations of assemblage components (i.e., canopy, mid-canopy and basal layer) were selectively removed, from the thinning of the canopy to the destruction of the entire assemblage. The recovery of the canopy-forming fucoids Hormosira banksii and Cystophora torulosa was affected by the intensity of the disturbance. For both species, even a 50% thinning had impacts lasting at least eighteen months, and recovery trajectories were longer following more intense perturbations. Independently of assemblage diversity and composition at different sites and shore heights, the recovery of the canopy relied entirely on the increase in abundance of these dominant fucoids in response to disturbance, indicating that functional redundancy is limited in this system. Minor understory fucoids, which could have provided functional replacement for the dominant habitat formers, had reduced rates of growth or recruitment when the overlying canopy was disturbed. I then used a combination of field and laboratory experiments to test the impacts of physical and biotic stress sources on the dominant fucoids H. banksii and C. torulosa. The large fucoid Durvillaea antarctica was also included in one of the laboratory investigations. I assessed how altered physical and biotic conditions affect these important habitat formers, both separately and in combination. Physical stressors included increased sedimentation, nutrient enrichment and warmer water temperatures. Biotic stress originated from interspecific competition with turfs of articulated coralline algae and ephemeral, fast-growing green and brown algae. Sediment deposition severely reduced the survival and growth of recently settled H. banksii, C. torulosa and D. antarctica germlings in laboratory experiments. In the field, the recruitment of H. banksii on unoccupied substrates was significantly higher than in treatments in which sediments or mats of turf-forming coralline algae covered the substrate. This shows that sediment deposition and space pre-emption by algal turfs can synergistically affect the development of fucoid beds. Further impacts of sediment accumulation in the benthic environment were investigated using in situ and laboratory photorespirometry techniques to assess the contribution of coralline algae to assemblage net primary productivity (NPP), both in the presence and absence of sediment. The NPP of articulated corallines was reduced by sediment. Sediment accumulation among the thalli limited the access of the corallines to the light and induced photoinhibitive mechanisms. In the absence of sediment, however, coralline algae enhanced the NPP of assemblages with a fucoid canopy, showing the importance of synergistic interactions among the components of multi-layered assemblages in optimizing light use. Nutrient enrichment had a less pervasive influence on the dominant fucoids H. banksii and C. torulosa than sedimentation. In laboratory experiments, nutrients stimulated the growth of H. banksii and C. torulosa germlings. However, negative impacts of high nutrient levels were observed for the early life stages of D. antarctica. The abundance of opportunistic, fast-growing algae rapidly increased in response to nutrient enrichment both in the laboratory and in the field. Impacts of ephemeral species on fucoid early life stages were only evident in laboratory contexts, where green algae of the genus Ulva impaired both the settlement of H. banksii zygotes and the growth of its germlings. Fucoid recruitment in the field was not affected by increased covers of ephemeral algae caused by enhanced nutrient regimes, indicating that H. banksii and C. torulosa may be resistant to short-term (one year) nutrient pollution. In the laboratory, increased temperatures within the range predicted for the end of the 21st century caused increased mortality in the H. banksii, C. torulosa and D. antarctica germlings. In a separate experiment, a combination of warmer water temperatures and nutrient enrichment enhanced the growth of ephemeral green algae. These results suggest that opposite responses to altered climate conditions may contribute to shifts from complex biogenic habitats dominated by macroalgal canopies to simplified systems monopolized by a limited number of stress-tolerant species. This research contributes to a clearer mechanistic understanding of biotic and physical mechanisms shaping the structure of coastal marine hard bottom communities under increasingly stressful conditions worldwide. These findings may provide insights for other studies investigating the complex mosaic of challenges facing marine coastal ecosystems.