Experimental assessment of the impacts of ocean acidification and urchin grazing on benthic kelp forest assemblages

Ocean acidification (OA) is likely to differentially affect the biology and physiology of calcifying and non-calcifying taxa, thereby potentially altering key ecological interactions (e.g., facilitation, competition, predation) in ways that are difficult to predict from single-species experiments. We used a two-factor experimental design to investigate how multispecies benthic assemblages in southern California kelp forests respond to OA and grazing by the purple sea urchinStrongylocentrotus purpuratus. Settlement tiles accrued natural mixed assemblages of algae and invertebrates in a kelp forest off San Diego, CA for one year before being exposed to OA and grazing in a laboratory experiment for two months. Space occupying organisms were identified and pooled into six functional groups: calcified invertebrates, non-calcified invertebrates, calcified algae, fleshy algae, sediment, and bare space for subsequent analyses of community structure. Interestingly, communities that developed on separate tile racks were unique, despite being deployed close in space, and further changes in community structure in response to OA and grazing depended on this initial community state. On Rack 1, we found significant effects of both pCO2 and grazing with elevated pCO2 increasing cover of fleshy algae, but sea urchin grazers decreasing cover of fleshy algae. On Rack 2, we found a ~ 35% higher percent cover of sediment on tiles reared in ambient pCO2 but observed ~27% higher cover of bare space in the high pCO2 conditions. On Rack 3, we found an average of 45% lower percent cover of calcified sessile invertebrates at ambient pCO2 than in high pCO2 treatments on Rack 3. Net community calcification was 137% lower in elevated pCO2 treatments. Kelp sporophyte densities on tiles without urchins were 74% higher than on tiles with urchins and kelp densities were highest in the elevated pCO2 treatment. Urchin growth and grazing rates were 49% and 126% higher under ambient than high pCO2 conditions. This study highlights consistent negative impacts of OA on community processes such as calcification and grazing rates, even though impacts on community structure were highly context-dependent.

Donham E. M., Hamilton S. L., Price N. N., Kram S., Kelly E., Johnson M. D., Neu A. T. & Smith J., 2021. Experimental assessment of the impacts of ocean acidification and urchin grazing on benthic kelp forest assemblages. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 540: 151548. doi: 10.1016/j.jembe.2021.151548. Article (subscription required).

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