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Sedentary urchins influence benthic community composition below the macroalgal zone



Sea urchins are important ecosystem engineers in subtidal ecosystems worldwide, providing biogenic structure and altering nutrient dynamics through intensive grazing and drift algal capture. The current work evaluates red urchin (Strongylocentrotus franciscanus) density on fixed transects through time, individual displacement, and urchin-associated benthic community composition using a field-based approach at multiple depths (in and outside of the macroalgal zone) and replicated across sites in the San Juan Archipelago, Washington. Urchins exhibited no large-scale, temporal or directional changes in density among depths. Furthermore, 87% of individual urchins observed in repeated small-scale surveys over 3 weeks exhibited no change in position. Individual displacement was negatively correlated to drift algal capture. Evidence of sedentary behavior from the displacement surveys was supported by the sessile and mobile community composition in areas directly under versus adjacent to (control) urchins. The benthos under urchins had a higher percentage of bare space, crustose coralline algae, and increased density of snails, crabs and shrimp relative to associated control plots. Abundance of mobile organisms associating with urchins increased relative to control plots at the deepest survey depth (30 m), indicating a greater strength of interaction with distance from macroalgal production. This work presents evidence of food availability-related behavior in red urchins and indicates that even when sedentary, urchins have a strong influence on ecosystem structure through increasing availability of shelter and macroalgal detritus to the benthos.