Primary production of intertidal marine macroalgae: factors influencing primary production over wide spatial and temporal scales
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Oxygenic photosynthesis is responsible for virtually all of the biochemical production of organic matter in both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Despite the large amount of research on phytoplankton, macroalgae have received less attention despite them being, on a per-area basis, one of the most productive ecosystems on earth. Furthermore, there has been a tendency of studies to measure primary production in single thalli, or monospecific stands. The lack of studies examining in situ production of whole assemblages using photorespirometry, as is common practice in soft-sediment systems, may be related to a lack of suitable apparatus. This research aimed to develop unique techniques and an apparatus for measuring primary production of intact macroalgal assemblages in laboratory and field conditions. Photorespirometry chambers were developed and tested on in situ macroalgal assemblages, giving information on the role of species identity, biodiversity, irradiance and community structure on overall primary production. Furthermore, the successful application of these methods was used to model annual primary production over local and regional scales, as well as the potential effects of human disturbance on production. In this study, photosynthesis-irradiance relationships (P-E curves) of intact intertidal algal assemblages showed no signs of saturation at high irradiance levels, as is typically seen in single species curves. Furthermore, diverse macroalgal assemblages showed a two-stage rise in production, with a significant enhancement of production at high irradiance. Evidence from this study suggests that the three-dimensional structure of natural assemblages, functional diversity and their interaction with a complex light environment is responsible for the unique P-E curves. The increased efficiency of light use in complex assemblages suggests an important role of species complmentarity in enhancing production with species diversity. This research also shows the potential consequences of disturbance on macroalgal assemblages, with the loss of several species causing a major decline in net production. The methods developed in this thesis have allowed simple modelling of annual rates of primary production and the parameters driving production of macroalgae over long time-scales. Respiration rates have a particularly large influence on production models and indicate that increasing temperature due to climate change could have significant consequences for net carbon fixation of macroalgae. This research gives valuable insight into the production of marine macroalgae and reinforces the notion that they are amongst the most productive systems on earth. These results revealed the importance of examining natural communities, as opposed to randomised assemblages and suggest a vital role of species diversity and community composition. Although there was no functional redundancy of the canopy forming species there did appear to be significant redundancy within the subcanopy assemblage. The identity of subcanopy species had little effect on production, but over longer temporal scales, as species come and go, they may help buffer the communities in terms of primary production. Furthermore, the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function (primary production), although driven by diversity, is moderated by resource levels. The complex relationship between irradiance, diversity and production shows the importance of resource levels in the enhancement of function with increasing biodiversity. Due to fundamental differences in terrestrial and marine systems, I was able to examine the effects of discrete levels of irradiance on production, which indicated an important role of complementary light use. This study represents advancements not only in the understanding of primary production in macroalgal assemblages, but also has implications for how diversity may enhance function in other autotrophic systems. The important role of enhanced efficiency of photon capture in multi-canopy layer communities may prove an essential process in ecosystems as diverse as macroalgal beds and tropical rain-forests.