Disturbance and recovery following catastrophic grazing: studies of a successional chronosequence in a seagrass bed
KeywordsEcology and Evolutionary Biology
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AbstractIn August 1997, a large aggregation of the common sea urchin, Lytechinus variegatus, was discovered moving southward through a lush and productive seagrass monoculture of Syringodium filiforme in the Florida Keys, FL. Sea urchin densities at the grazing front were greater than 300 individuals m−2 which resulted in the overgrazing of seagrasses and a complete denuding of all vegetation from this area. The steady rate of the grazing front migration permitted the estimation of the time since disturbance for any point behind this grazing front allowing the use of a chronosequence approach to investigate the processes early on in succession of these communities. In May 1999, six north-south parallel transects were established across the disturbed seagrass communities and into the undisturbed areas south of the grazing front. Based on the measured rates of the migration of the grazing front, we grouped 60 sites into five categories (disturbed, recently grazed, active grazing front, stressed and undisturbed). The large scale loss of seagrass biomass initiated community-wide cascading effects that significantly altered resource regimes and species diversity. The loss of the seagrass canopy and subsequent death and decay of the below-ground biomass resulted in a de-stabilization of the sediments. As the sediments were eroded into the water column, turbidity significantly increased, reducing light availability and significantly reducing the sediment nitrogen pool and depleting the seed bank. The portion of the chronosequence that has had the longest period of recovery now consists of a mixed community of seagrass and macroalgae, as remnant survivors and quick colonizers coexist and jointly take advantage of the open space.