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Invertebrate-mediated nutrient loading increases growth of an intertidal macroalga


Even in nitrogen-replete ecosystems, microhabitats exist where local-scale nutrient limitation occurs. For example, coastal waters of the northeastern Pacific Ocean are characterized by high nitrate concentrations associated with upwelling. However, macroalgae living in high-zone tide pools on adjacent rocky shores are isolated from this upwelled nitrate for extended periods of time, leading to nutrient limitation. When high-intertidal pools are isolated during low tide, invertebrate-excreted ammonium accumulates, providing a potential nitrogen source for macroalgae. I quantified the influence of mussels (Mytilus californianus Conrad) on ammonium accumulation rates in tide pools. I then evaluated the effects of ammonium loading by mussels on nitrogen assimilation and growth rates of Odonthalia floccosa (Esp.) Falkenb., a common red algal inhabitant of pools on northeastern Pacific rocky shores. Odonthalia was grown in artificial tide pool mesocosms in the presence and absence of mussels. Mesocosms were subjected to a simulated tidal cycle mimicking emersion and immersion patterns of high-intertidal pools on the central Oregon coast. In the presence of mussels, ammonium accumulated more quickly in the mesocosms, resulting in increased rates of nitrogen assimilation into algal tissues. These increased nitrogen assimilation rates were primarily associated with higher growth rates. In mesocosms containing mussels, Odonthalia individuals added 41% more biomass than in mesocosms without mussels. This direct positive effect of mussels on macroalgal biomass represents an often overlooked interaction between macroalgae and invertebrates. In nutrient-limited microhabitats, such as high-intertidal pools, invertebrate-excreted ammonium is likely an important local-scale contributor to macroalgal productivity.

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