Effects of ocean acidification on the performance and interaction of fleshy macroalgae and a grazing sea urchin


  • We investigated the direct and indirect effects of CO2 on an urchin and macroalgae.
  • Elevated CO2 increased production of fleshy macroalgae biomass but not photosynthesis.
  • Urchin respiration, biomass, righting time, and consumption rate were unaffected.
  • Reduced algal nutrition interacted with impaired chemosensing to preserve foraging.
  • Foraging and consumption suggest sustained trophic interactions under acidification.


When predicting the response of marine ecosystems to climate change, it is increasingly recognized that understanding the indirect effects of ocean acidification on trophic interactions is as important as studying direct effects on organism physiology. Furthermore, comprehensive studies that examine these effects simultaneously are needed to identify and link the underlying mechanisms driving changes in species interactions. Using an onshore ocean acidification simulator system, we investigated the direct and indirect effects of elevated seawater pCO2 on the physiology and trophic interaction of fleshy macroalgae and the grazing sea urchin Lytechinus variegatus. Macroalgal (Dictyota spp.) biomass increased despite decreased photosynthetic rates after two-week exposure to elevated pCO2. Algal tissue carbon content remained constant, suggesting the use of alternative carbon acquisition pathways beneficial to growth under acidification. Higher C:N ratios driven by a slight reduction in N content in algae exposed to elevated pCO2 suggest a decrease in nutritional content under acidification. Urchin (L. variegatus) respiration, biomass, and righting time did not change significantly after six-week exposure to elevated pCO2, indicating that physiological stress and changes in metabolism are not mechanisms through which the trophic interaction was impacted. Correspondingly, urchin consumption rates of untreated macroalgae (Caulerpa racemosa) were not significantly affected by pCO2. In contrast, exposure of urchins to elevated pCO2 significantly reduced the number of correct foraging choices for ambient macroalgae (Dictyota spp.), indicating impairment of urchin chemical sensing under acidification. However, exposure of algae to elevated pCO2 returned the number of correct foraging choices in similarly exposed urchins to ambient levels, suggesting alongside higher C:N ratios that algal nutritional content was altered in a way detectable by the urchins under acidification. These results highlight the importance of studying the indirect effects of acidification on trophic interactions simultaneously with direct effects on physiology. Together, these results suggest that changes to urchin chemical sensing and algal nutritional quality are the driving mechanisms behind surprisingly unaltered urchin foraging behavior for fleshy macroalgae under joint exposure to ocean acidification. Consistent foraging behavior and consumption rates suggest that the trophic interaction between L. variegatus and fleshy macroalgae may be sustained under future acidification. However, increases in fleshy macroalgal biomass driven by opportunistic carbon acquisition strategies have the potential to cause ecological change, depending on how grazer populations respond. Additional field research is needed to determine the outcome of these results over time and under a wider range of environmental conditions.

Burnham K. A., Nowicki R. J., Hall E. R., Pi J. & Page H. N., 2021. Effects of ocean acidification on the performance and interaction of fleshy macroalgae and a grazing sea urchin. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 547: 151662. doi: 10.1016/j.jembe.2021.151662. Article (subscription required).

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