Natural acidification changes the timing and rate of succession, alters community structure, and increases homogeneity in marine biofouling communities

Ocean acidification may have far-reaching consequences for marine community and ecosystem dynamics, but its full impacts remain poorly understood due to the difficulty of manipulating pCO2 at the ecosystem level to mimic realistic fluctuations that occur on a number of different timescales. It is especially unclear how quickly communities at various stages of development respond to intermediate-scale pCO2 change and, if high pCO2 is relieved mid-succession, whether past acidification effects persist, are reversed by alleviation of pCO2 stress, or are worsened by departures from prior high pCO2 conditions to which organisms had acclimatized. Here, we used reciprocal transplant experiments along a shallow water volcanic pCO2 gradient to assess the importance of the timing and duration of high pCO2 exposure (i.e. discrete events at different stages of successional development vs. continuous exposure) on patterns of colonization and succession in a benthic fouling community. We show that succession at the acidified site was initially delayed (less community change by eight weeks) but then caught up over the next four weeks. These changes in succession led to homogenization of communities maintained in or transplanted to acidified conditions, and altered community structure in ways that reflected both short- and longer-term acidification history. These community shifts are likely a result of interspecific variability in response to increased pCO2 and changes in species interactions. High pCO2 altered biofilm development, allowing serpulids to do best at the acidified site by the end of the experiment, although early (pre-transplant), negative effects of pCO2 on recruitment of these worms was still detectable. The ascidians Diplosoma sp. and Botryllus sp. settled later and were more tolerant to acidification. Overall, transient and persistent acidification-driven changes in the biofouling community, via both past and more recent exposure, could have important implications for ecosystem function and food web dynamics.

Brown N. E. M., Milazzo M., Rastrick S. P. S., Hall-Spencer J. M., Therriault T. W. & Harley C. G. D., in press. Natural acidification changes the timing and rate of succession, alters community structure, and increases homogeneity in marine biofouling communities. Global Change Biology. Article (subscription required).

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