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Misinterpreting the potential benefits of aggregation for reducing desiccation in the intertidal: a simple analogy


Richard Stafford, Division of Science, University of Bedfordshire, Luton LU1 3JU, UK.


The potential adaptive benefits of aggregation in intertidal invertebrates, in terms of preventing desiccation stress, are logical, but have proved difficult to confirm from field measurements. Through a simple analogy we explain why this may be so, especially for those species that do not solely forage when fully immersed. Measuring water content (or osmotic potentials of body fluids) of individuals that become inactive in aggregations and comparing this with non-aggregated individuals, which is the most common method of determining adaptive benefits of aggregation to desiccation, (i) causes any relationships between desiccation and aggregation to be, at best, weakly related due to variability in the different times that individuals enter aggregations, and (ii) is not measuring the true benefit of aggregation, which in this case should be measured as a reduction in the rate of water loss. Further, the design of field studies or experiments to determine the benefits of aggregation in terms of desiccation reduction is extremely challenging, due to the unavoidable repeated disturbances to individuals that are necessary to measure water levels at multiple occasions, in order to measure the rate of water loss. We suggest that development of biomimetic sensors, such as modification of the robolimpet sensor, are required to measure in situ rates of water loss with a high temporal resolution. Although such sensors may not be truly physiologically realistic, they are likely to provide the least confounded approach to understanding benefits of aggregation in terms of physical stress reduction.