- 1Herbivory is particularly intense in marine environments, with a higher proportion of primary productivity removed than in terrestrial habitats. Experimental manipulation of large herbivores (fish, urchins) has clearly documented their grazing impacts on algal and seagrass beds. Grazing impacts of mesograzers (small invertebrates such as amphipods and isopods) are, however, less understood due to the practical difficulties in manipulating their abundance in field conditions.
- 2We developed a novel technique that successfully manipulated the abundance of herbivorous amphipods on macroalgae without the potential artefacts associated with exclusion cages or mesocosms. We then used this technique to test the effects of reduced amphipod grazing over extended periods on the structure of a temperate algal assemblage. We tested grazer effects on growth rates and epiphyte cover of the brown alga Sargassum linearifolium, and on developing assemblages on bare substrates.
- 3Large reductions in the abundance of herbivorous amphipods affected neither the growth rates of S. linearifolium, the cover of its epiphytes, nor the structure of algal assemblages. This result contrasts strongly to previous studies in mesocosms documenting strong impacts of mesograzers on community structure, and we discuss differences in the experimental approaches and biology of the systems that could give rise to the observed differences in grazer impacts.
- 4Synthesis. Marine macroalgae and seagrasses support very high densities of small herbivores whose ecological role in these habitats is poorly understood. We have provided the first, replicated experiment that directly manipulates their density in situ to quantify grazer impacts without caging artefacts. Our results indicate that strong impacts are not likely with the naturally occurring amphipod densities in the temperate algal bed studied. Further such experimental tests in field conditions are required to understand the properties of grazer and plant communities that can predict grazer impacts.