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Broad Salinity Tolerance as a Refuge from Predation in the Harmful Raphidophyte Alga Heterosigma akashiwo (Raphidophyceae)


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The ability of harmful algal species to form dense, nearly monospecific blooms remains an ecological and evolutionary puzzle. We hypothesized that predation interacts with estuarine salinity gradients to promote blooms of Heterosigma akashiwo (Y. Hada) Y. Hada ex Y. Hara et M. Chihara, a cosmopolitan toxic raphidophyte. Specifically, H. akashiwo's broad salinity tolerance appears to provide a refuge from predation that enhances the net growth of H. akashiwo populations through several mechanisms. (1) Contrasting salinity tolerance of predators and prey. Estuarine H. akashiwo isolates from the west coast of North America grew rapidly at salinities as low as six, and distributed throughout experimental salinity gradients to salinities as low as three. In contrast, survival of most protistan predator species was restricted to salinities >15. (2) H. akashiwo physiological and behavioral plasticity. Acclimation to low salinity enhanced H. akashiwo's ability to accumulate and grow in low salinity waters. In addition, the presence of a ciliate predator altered H. akashiwo swimming behavior, promoting accumulation in low-salinity surface layers inhospitable to the ciliate. (3) Negative effects of low salinity on predation processes. Ciliate predation rates decreased sharply at salinities <25 and, for one species, H. akashiwo toxicity increased at low salinities. Taken together, these behaviors and responses imply that blooms can readily initiate in low salinity waters where H. akashiwo would experience decreased predation pressure while maintaining near-maximal growth rates. The salinity structure of a typical estuary would provide this HAB species a unique refuge from predation. Broad salinity tolerance in raphidophytes may have evolved in part as a response to selective pressures associated with predation.