It has recently been hypothesized that intertidal mussel beds and seaweed canopies in the Gulf of Maine are alternate community stable states or disturbance patch mosaics dominated by either seaweed or mussel communities. The community that occurs in a given site is proposed to be stochastic and dependent on the size of the original disturbance and subsequent recruit availability. Large disturbances are postulated to be dominated by mussel beds and barnacles with widely dispersed larvae, whereas smaller disturbances are dominated by seaweeds, with limited dispersal. Positive feedbacks are proposed to maintain these two communities.
We tested this hypothesis in a tidal estuary in central Maine. At eight mussel bed and eight seaweed canopy sites, we created 9-m2 and 1-m2 clearings and an unmanipulated control area, and in each plot established control, caged, and cage control quadrats. After three years of monitoring, our results do not support the alternate stable state hypothesis. Instead, they suggest that the occurrence of mussel beds and seaweed canopies is highly deterministic. Seaweed canopies dominate habitats with relatively little water movement, whereas mussel beds dominate habitats with high flows; and largely independent of disturbance size, mussel beds and seaweed canopies rapidly returned to their original community type, but only in the absence of consumers (crabs and snails). With consumers present, neither community showed significant signs of recovery, even after three years. In the presence of consumers, community recovery appears to be dependent on cracks and crevices providing refuges from consumers to seaweed and mussel recruits.
The idea that natural communities may represent stochastically determined alternate stable states has important implications for understanding and managing natural ecosystems, but the very existence of alternate stable states in nature has been difficult to establish. Our results suggest that intertidal seaweed canopies and mussel beds in tidal rivers in the Gulf of Maine are highly deterministic alternative community states under consumer control. More generally, since all proposed examples of alternate community stable states are based on indirect, inferential evidence, our results imply that stochastically determined alternate community stable states might be an interesting theoretical idea without a definitive empirical example.