Resilient consumers accelerate the plant decomposition in a naturally acidified seagrass ecosystem

Anthropogenic stressors are predicted to alter biodiversity and ecosystem functioning worldwide. However, scaling up from species to ecosystem responses poses a challenge, as species and functional groups can exhibit different capacities to adapt, acclimate, and compensate under changing environments. We used a naturally acidified seagrass ecosystem (the endemic Mediterranean Posidonia oceanica) as a model system to examine how ocean acidification (OA) modifies the community structure and functioning of plant detritivores, which play vital roles in the coastal nutrient cycling and food web dynamics. In seagrass beds associated with volcanic CO2 vents (Ischia, Italy), we quantified the effects of OA on seagrass decomposition by deploying litterbags in three distinct pH zones (i.e., ambient, low, extreme low pH), which differed in the mean and variability of seawater pH. We replicated the study in two discrete vents for 117 days (litterbags sampled on day 5, 10, 28, 55, and 117). Acidification reduced seagrass detritivore richness and diversity through the loss of less abundant, pH-sensitive species but increased the abundance of the dominant detritivore (amphipod Gammarella fucicola). Such compensatory shifts in species abundance caused more than a three-fold increase in the total detritivore abundance in lower pH zones. These community changes were associated with increased consumption (52-112%) and decay of seagrass detritus (up to 67% faster decomposition rate for the slow-decaying, refractory detrital pool) under acidification. Seagrass detritus deployed in acidified zones showed increased N content and decreased C:N ratio, indicating that altered microbial activities under OA may have affected the decay process. The findings suggest that OA could restructure consumer assemblages and modify plant decomposition in blue carbon ecosystems, which may have important implications for carbon sequestration, nutrient recycling, and trophic transfer. Our study highlights the importance of within-community response variability and compensatory processes in modulating ecosystem functions under extreme global change scenarios.

Lee J., Gambi M.C., Kroeker K.J., Munari M., Peay K. & Micheli, F., in press. Resilient consumers accelerate the plant decomposition in a naturally acidified seagrass ecosystem. Global Change Biology. Article (subscription required).

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