Trophic redundancy and predator size class structure drive differences in kelp forest ecosystem dynamics.

TitleTrophic redundancy and predator size class structure drive differences in kelp forest ecosystem dynamics.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsEisaguirre JH, Eisaguirre JM, Davis K, Carlson PM, Gaines SD, Caselle JE
Date Published2020 Jan 30

Ecosystems are changing at alarming rates because of climate change and a wide variety of other anthropogenic stressors. These stressors have the potential to cause phase shifts to less productive ecosystems. A major challenge for ecologists is to identify ecosystem attributes that enhance resilience and can buffer systems from shifts to less desirable alternative states. In this study, we used the Northern Channel Islands, California, as a model kelp forest ecosystem that had been perturbed from the loss of an important sea star predator due to a sea star wasting disease. To determine the mechanisms that prevent phase shifts from productive kelp forests to less productive urchin barrens, we compared pre- and postdisease predator assemblages as predictors of purple urchin densities. We found that prior to the onset of the disease outbreak, the sunflower sea star exerted strong predation pressures and was able to suppress purple urchin populations effectively. After the disease outbreak, which functionally extirpated the sunflower star, we found that the ecosystem response-urchin and algal abundances-depended on the abundance and/or size of remaining predator species. Inside Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the large numbers and sizes of other urchin predators suppressed purple urchin populations resulting in kelp and understory algal growth. Outside of the MPAs, where these alternative urchin predators are fished, less abundant, and smaller, urchin populations grew dramatically in the absence of sunflower stars resulting in less kelp at these locations. Our results demonstrate that protected trophic redundancy inside MPAs creates a net of stability that could limit kelp forest ecosystem phase shifts to less desirable, alternative states when perturbed. This highlights the importance of harboring diversity and managing predator guilds.

Alternate JournalEcology
PubMed ID32002994
Grant ListPISCO / / David and Lucile Packard Foundation /
/ / California Ocean Protection Council /
/ / Coastal Fund, University of California, Santa Barbara /
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