Shading Facilitates Sessile Invertebrate Dominance in the Rocky Subtidal Gulf of Maine

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2008


Dramatic shifts in community composition occur between vertical and horizontal rocky surfaces in subtidal environments worldwide, yet the forces mediating this transition are poorly understood. Vertical rock walls are often covered by lush, diverse communities of sessile suspension-feeding invertebrates, while adjacent horizontal substrates are dominated by algae, or corals in the tropics. Multiple factors, including light, sedimentation, water flow, and predation have been proposed to explain this pattern, but experimental tests of these hypotheses are lacking. We manipulated light level and predation to test whether variation in these mechanisms could be responsible for the shift in composition of sessile communities between vertical and horizontal surfaces in the rocky subtidal Gulf of Maine. Shaded horizontally oriented granite plots were dominated by invertebrates (e.g., ascidians, barnacles, bryozoans) after 25 months. Unshaded plots were dominated by macroalgae, which was virtually absent in shaded plots. Exclusion of grazers with cages had no effect on percent cover of invertebrates or algae. Preferential settlement of invertebrate larvae to shaded plots, due to larval behaviors such as negative phototaxis, did not seem to play a role. Shading likely affects post-settlement mortality of invertebrates by alleviating competition for space with algae, although greater abundance of micropredators in algaldominated communities could also be important. Communities on shaded plots lacked many taxa present on natural wall communities, likely due to greater disturbance on horizontal substrates and/or lack of sufficient time for colonization of these taxa. These results suggest that light plays a key role in controlling the structure, composition, and function of shallow subtidal communities.


Copyright by the Ecological Society of America: http://www.esa.org/



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