Combined effects of fragmentation and herbivory on Posidonia oceanica seagrass ecosystems


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  1. Fragmentation is a major agent for seagrass meadow decline, yet little is known about how it interacts with processes like herbivory, an important functional driver of seagrass meadows. The interaction with external stressors like fragmentation could exacerbate the effects of internal ecosystem drivers like herbivory, with distinct implications for ecosystem management.
  2. We used manipulative field experiments to assess these interactive effects in two Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows. We monitored replicated plots in small and large patches in two meadows suffering fragmentation with and without herbivores (using exclusion cages) to test whether fragment size and herbivory could act together to alter ecosystem functioning. We measured changes in defoliation rates, primary production, canopy height and nutrient content in all plots after 4 months of herbivore exclusion.
  3. Our results show that herbivores increased defoliation rates resulting in reduced primary production, nutrient content and canopy structure (canopy height). Patch size (fragment) on its own also reduced primary production, nutrient content and canopy structure. We also observed significant additive interactions between herbivores and fragmentation on canopy structure and production responses. In addition, small patches showed nutrient limitation but were able to accumulate more carbohydrate reserves, probably due to a higher light availability. This may explain why small patches can persist under significant herbivore pressure.
  4. Synthesis. While fragmentation has already been identified as an important external agent of seagrass decline, the combination of fragmentation and herbivory can seriously exacerbate structural losses and affect primary production, profoundly compromising the role of seagrasses as habitat-forming ecosystems. These interactions between external stressors and internal drivers may result in large unexpected consequences that may flow on to the rest of the ecosystem.