Kelp consumption curtailed by señorita

Miranda Haggerty was diving through a kelp forest, and noticed that many kelp bore a large number of tiny limpets that were housed in small scars that they (or a fellow-limpet) had excavated on the kelp’s surface. This got her thinking about how these scars might affect the kelp, and equally relevant, whether there were any limpet predators that might lend the kelp a hand (or a mouth) by removing limpets.

Jerry Kirkhart

A limpet grazes on a kelp frond. Credit: Jerry Kirkhart

Feather boa kelp (Egregia menziesii) is a foundation species within the subtidal marine system off the California coast, providing food and habitat for many species that live on or among its fronds. The tiny seaweed limpet, Lottia insessa, specializes on feather boa kelp, grazing on its fronds and living within the scars. Many invertebrates and fish live within the kelp forest, but the most abundant fish is the señorita, Oxyjulis californica. Haggerty wondered whether the señorita might benefit the kelp (directly) by removing limpets, or (indirectly) by scaring limpets away – what ecologists call a trait-mediated indirect interaction.


The señorita – a fearsome predator of limpets.  Credit: Miranda Haggerty

The first order of business was to determine whether the limpets were actually harming the kelp.  Haggerty and her colleagues approached this in two ways.  First they chose 94 kelp plants from kelp forests off the California coast.  From each individual they chose one grazed and one ungrazed frond (each 3 m long). Grazed fronds averaged 5-10 scars and at least 2 limpets per meter of length.  Every three weeks they visited their kelp to score for broken fronds. In 29 of 30 cases, the grazed frond broke before the ungrazed frond (in the remaining cases the entire plant was missing, or both fronds broke and the researchers could not tell which had broken first).


Photo of feather boa kelp showing grazing scars, including one housing a limpet (left).  Diagram of feather boa kelp showing multiple fronds (right).

But the researchers were concerned that perhaps limpets chose to graze on weaker fronds, so the breakage was not caused by grazing scars, but by limpet choice.  To account for this concern, Haggerty and her colleagues chose 43 ungrazed kelp plants, placed three  limpets on one frond, and chose a second, equal-sized frond as an unmanipulated control. Once again, they visited their plants every three weeks, and discovered that grazed fronds broke first in all 20 pairs that the sequence of frond breakage could be determined.  Clearly, limpet grazing is bad news for feather boa kelp.

How does the señorita fit into this system? The researchers designed a laboratory experiment to address this question.  They used 10 large tanks (1700 L), and set up five different experimental treatments to compare direct effects of predation, and indirect effects of predator presence, on limpet grazing, and ultimately on kelp survival. To isolate the direct effects of predation from the indirect effects of predator cues on limpets, Haggerty and her colleagues placed four kelp fronds into fish exclosure cages, which were housed in the large tanks, and placed three limpets onto some of these fronds.  To mimic actual predation (CE treatment in Table below), they removed limpets by hand at a constant rate typical of señorita predation. For the NCE treatment (testing indirect effects of predator presence) they introduced señorita into the large tank so the limpets experienced the predator cues, but were not eaten. The different treatments are summarized in the table below. These experiments ran for one week and each treatment was replicated 10 times.

HaggertyTableFinalEach day the researchers monitored the number of limpets and grazing scars.  After one week, Haggerty and her colleagues counted the number of grazing scars, and measured the breaking strength of each frond by clamping the frond’s end to a table and pulling on the opposite end with a spring scale until it broke. They then recorded the amount of force needed to break the frond.


Clamped kelp frond whose breaking strength has been tested.  Notice that the frond broke at a grazing scar (right). Credit Miranda Haggerty.

Not surprisingly, the predator control (PC) kelp (limpets present without señorita) had the most scars and lost the greatest amount of tissue.  Kelp receiving the consumptive predator effect treatment (CE) had fewer scars and lost less tissue than PC.  But interestingly, kelp receiving NCE and TPE treatments had significantly fewer scars than the CE kelp, and were statistically indistinguishable from each other.  Thus, in the laboratory, the presence of señorita cues (NCE treatment) was more important than actual predation (CE treatment) in reducing kelp scarring and tissue consumption (top and middle graph below).  As a result, the NCE treated kelp were stronger (had greater breaking strength) than were the CE treated kelp (bottom graph below).


Mean (+ standard error) number of grazing scars (top), mass of tissue consumed (middle) and breaking strength (bottom) of kelp in response to five experimental treatments. CE = consumptive effect, NCE = non-consumptive effect, TPE = total predator effect, PC = predator control, LC = limpet control. Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between the means when comparing treatments.

Haggerty and her colleagues replicated this experiment, with a few experimental design modifications, in a field setting.  As with the laboratory experiment we’ve just discussed, the researchers found a very strong non-consumptive effect. The researchers suspect that these limpets respond to chemical cues emitted by their señorita predators. They could not respond to many types of sensory cues because they lack auditory organs, and the experimental design prevented fish from transmitting any shadows (visual cues) or vibrational cues. In addition previous studies have shown that some limpet species use chemoreception for predator avoidance, foraging and homing. However, the nature of this chemical cue is yet to be discovered for this predator-prey system.


Schooling señorita. Credit: Miranda Haggerty

Trophic cascades occur when the effects of one species on another species cascade down through the ecosystem. In this case, señorita predators directly and indirectly reduce limpet density, which increases the survival of kelp – a foundation species for this ecosystem. The researchers point out that this trophic cascade only occurs in the southern feather boa kelp range, because señorita are absent further north.  We don’t know if limpets have other predators in the northern range, but we do know that the kelp are structurally more robust further north, so they (and the ecosystem) may be relatively immune to limpet-induced destruction.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Haggerty, M. B., Anderson, T. W. and Long, J. D. (2018), Fish predators reduce kelp frond loss via a trait‐mediated trophic cascade. Ecology, 99: 1574-1583. doi:10.1002/ecy.2380. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Finding fish fluorescently

Very early in my teaching career at Carleton College in Minnesota, I was thrust into the position of teaching students about things that I knew very little about.  I quickly learned that things went well, so long as I confessed my ignorance – the very bright students at that college were always happy to help me with my education. My ignorance of things biological stemmed from my undergraduate training in psychology, which had only a smattering of biology and chemistry in the coursework.  So when we extracted chlorophyll from a plant, shone a bright high-energy (probably UV) light on it, and it glowed a beautiful red, my reaction was “wooo…, that’s cool.”  My colleague, who was much more broadly trained, explained that this process, biofluorescence, occurred because the chlorophyll’s electrons were excited by the high energy light, and that they emitted the red light when they returned to a lower-energy state.

Marteenfig1Solenostomus cyanopterus

Robust ghost pipefish, Solenostomus cyanopterus, is cryptic in ambient daylight (left), but biofluoresces red when lit at night by a high-intensity LED torch (right).


Many threatened or endangered marine species are cryptic, providing challenges to conservation biologists who must assess the abundance of these species.  Usually, marine biologists use underwater visual censuses to measure abundance and distribution of marine species, but small or cryptic species are often missed or undercounted.  Maarten de Brauwer reasoned that conservation biologists could use biofluorescence as a tool to find small or cryptic marine organisms.  He knew from a paper that recently came out in the literature, and from his own experience as a diver, that a number of cryptic species do fluoresce. But how large is that number?


A diver searches for biofluorescent species. Credit: J. A. Hobbs

DeBrauer, working with five other researchers, surveyed reef fish at four locations in Indonesia, as well as two locations outside Indonesia (Christmas Island and the Cocos Islands).  Indonesia was a conservation priority as it contains the world’s greatest abundance of marine fish species. Using high-energy LED torches, the researchers surveyed 31 sites at the six locations, assessing each fish they detected for whether it was cryptic or non-cryptic, and whether it fluoresced. Of 95 cryptic species, 83 fluoresced.  In contrast, only 12 of 135 non-cryptic species fluoresced.


Number of cryptic and non-cryptic species showing biofluorescence in the survey.

Why are cryptic species more likely to biofluoresce?  As it turns out, we don’t know the answer to this question.  De Brauwer suggests that some small species, like gobies and triplefins, may use flourescence, which is particularly well-defined around the head region, as a way of communicating without predator detection.  These species fluoresce in red, a very-short-range light, so predators won’t see them unless they are very close. Some species of scorpionfish that live in algae and seagrass also fluoresce red, which allows them to blend in well with the red fluorescence emitted by the algal and seagrass chlorophyll.

Having shown that cryptic species tend to bioflouresce, the next challenge was to see whether bioflourescence surveys worked better than standard underwater visual censuses. First, the researchers focused their efforts on two species of pygmy seahorses (Hippocanpus bargibanti and H. denise) that live on seafans, searching for two minutes, either with or without a flourescence torch.  They followed with a similar study on two species of reef fish, the largemouth triplefin (Ucla xenogrammus) and the highfin triplefin (Enneapterygius tutuilae); but this time surveying 20m x 2m transects, either with or without a fluorescence torch.


A diver searches a seafan for pygmy seahorses. Credit: J. A. Hobbs.

Unfortunately, the pygmy seahorses are tiny (as you might suspect from their name) and probably rare, so only 32 H. bargibanti and 7 H. denise were detected. These seahorses fluoresce red primarily in their tail region and green from their eyes.


Two cryptic pygmy seahorses “seen” under ambient light (left, circled in red) and in the underwater biofluorescence census (right).

The numbers of H. denise were too small to include in the analysis. But for the other three species, the bioflourescence surveys detected more individuals than did the underwater visual surveys.


Mean number of individual H. bargibanti (left), U. xenogrammus (center) and E. tutuilae (right) detected with underwater visual surveys (UVC) vs. underwater biofluorescence surveys (UBC).

The researchers discovered that bioflourescence is very common in these cryptic and rare species, which means this technique can be used to assess abundance in species most likely to be overlooked using standard underwater visual surveys. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which (among other tasks) is responsible for assessing the extinction risk of species worldwide, has only been able to do so for less than 44% of fish belonging to three large cryptic families of reef fish.  Of 2000 species in these three families, 21% are listed as data-deficient because they have been so difficult to survey.  This novel approach should help inform conservation biologists about species that are in dire straits, so they can focus conservation efforts in a productive and useful direction.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Conservation Biology. The reference is Brauwer, M., Hobbs, J. A., Ambo‐Rappe, R., Jompa, J., Harvey, E. S. and McIlwain, J. L. (2018), Biofluorescence as a survey tool for cryptic marine species. Conservation Biology, 32: 706-715. doi:10.1111/cobi.13033. You should also check out Dr. De Brauwer’s blog at Thanks to the Society for Conservation Biology for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Society for Conservation Biology. All rights reserved.

Seaweed defense – location, location, location.

If you’re ever feeling sorry for yourself, you should know that things could have been much worse; you could have been the brown seaweed, Silvetia compressa. So many problems!  Ocean waves come crashing over you, threatening to pull you off your life-sustaining substrate.  Ocean tides recede, exposing you to harsh sun and dangerously dry conditions. Perhaps worst of all, the fearsome predator Tegula funebralis eats away at your body, and you are powerless to defend yourself from its savage ravages.


Tegula snails chomp away on Silvetia seaweed in northern California. Credit: Emily Jones.

As it turns out, Silvetia is not so powerless after all.  After being partially grazed by Tegula, the seaweed can induce defenses that reduce its palatability.  From prior work, Emily Jones noticed that seaweed from northern California shorelines was much more sensitive to grazing than was seaweed from southern California shorelines.  It took fewer grazing snails to elicit palatability reduction in northern Silvetia than it did in southern Silvetia. She decided to focus her PhD work with Jeremy Long on documenting these geographic differences, and figuring out why they exist.


Emily Matthews (near) and Grace Ha (far) survey snails and seaweed in a northern California site. Credit: Emily Jones.

Environmental conditions vary along the California coast.  Northern seaweed populations experience cooler temperatures (air ~5-20 °C; water ~10-12 °C) and more nutrients (nitrate levels up to 40 umol/L) than do southern populations (air 5-37 °C; water ~14-20 °C; nitrate levels < 2 umol/L). In addition, Jones and Long surveyed Tegula abundance at three northern California and three southern California sites, counting every snail in 20 quadrats placed in the low, mid and high intertidal zone at each of the six sites (360 0.25 X 0.25m quadrats in total) .  They discovered that seaweed was much more likely to encounter Tegula along northern coastlines.


Percent of plots with Tegula snails in northern sites (Stornetta, Moat Creek and Sea Ranch – blue bars) and southern sites (Coast, Calumet and Cabrillo – orange bars). High, Mid and Low refer to location within the intertidal zone (high is closest to shore and regularly exposed at low tide).

Given these differences in snail abundance, we can now understand why Silvetia is more sensitive in its northern range to Tegula grazing.  But how strong are these differences in sensitivity? Jones and Long developed a simple paired-choice feeding preference assay to test for differences in palatability. At each location (north and south), the researchers gave test snails a choice between feeding on seaweed that had been previously grazed by either 1, 4, 7, 10 or 13 Tegula snails, or to feed on seaweed with no grazing history.  The test snails grazed for five days, and the researchers measured the amount of seaweed consumed for each group. They discovered that even a little bit of previous grazing (the 1-snail treatment) made northern test snails prefer non-grazed northern Silvetia, while only high levels of previous grazing (the 10 and 13-snail treatments) had similar effects on southern snails tested on southern Silvetia.


Amount of previously-grazed and non-grazed Silvetia eaten by Tegula in paired choice tests. (Top) Northern Selvetia, (Bottom) Southern Silvetia. Error bars are 1SE. * indicates significant differences in consumption rate.

These findings raised the question of whether the cooler and more nutrient-rich environmental conditions at the northern site were somehow causing this difference in consumption of previously-grazed seaweed.  The researchers designed a series of common garden experiments at the Bodega Marine Laboratory, in which seaweed from both locations were tested in the same environment.  Silvetia was exposed to grazing by two snails, or by no snails for 14 days. When test snails were given the choice of non-grazed or previously-grazed northern Silvetia, they much preferred eating non-grazed Silvetia. In contrast, they showed no preference when given a similar choice between non-grazed or previously-grazed southern Silvetia. This indicates that seaweed from the north are responding more to grazing by reducing palatability than are seaweed from the southern locations.


Amount of previously-grazed and non-grazed northern and southern Silvetia eaten by Tegula in paired choice tests.

In theory, there could be a tradeoff between induced defenses, such as reduction in palatability in response to grazing, and constitutive defenses, which an organism expresses all of the time.  Examples of constitutive defenses are thorns or spines in plants, and cryptic coloration or body shape in many insects.  Jones and Long found no evidence for such a tradeoff; in contrast southern Silvetia actually had lower levels of constitutive defenses, as both northern and southern Tegula strongly preferred eating southern Silvetia in paired choice tests.


Amount of northern and southern Silvetia eaten by northern and southern Tegula in paired choice tests.

These geographic differences in seaweed sensitivity to grazing are probably due to long-term differences in environmental history.  Southern Silvetia seaweeds live in stressful conditions (high temperatures and low nutrients), and the physiological cost of mounting an induced defense against low and moderate levels of grazing may be too high to be worthwhile. We also don’t know what the overall grazing rates are in the north versus the south, and importantly, how variable the grazing rates are in each location.  Highly variable grazing rates would select for a strong set of induced responses, which could be turned on and off as needed, allowing seaweed, or any plant, to defend itself against new or more hungry herbivores moving into their environment.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Jones, Emily and Long, Jeremy D. 2018. Geographic variation in the sensitivity of an herbivore-induced seaweed defense. Ecology. doi: 10.1002/ecy.2407. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Indirect effects of the lionfish invasion

I’m old enough to remember when ecological studies of invasive species were uncommon.  Early on, there was a debate within the ecological community whether they should be called “invasive” (which conveyed to some people an aggressive image akin to a military invasion) or more dispassionately “exotic” or “introduced.” Lionfish (Pterois volitans), however, fit this more aggressive moniker. Native to the south Pacific and Indian Oceans, lionfish were first sighted in south Florida in 1985, and became established along the east Atlantic coast and Caribbean Islands by the early 2000s. They are active and voracious predators, consuming over 50 different species of prey in their newly-adopted habitat. Many population ecologists study the direct consumptive effects of invasive species such as lionfish.  In some cases they find that an invasive species may deplete its prey population to very low levels, and even drive it to extinction.


A lionfish swims in a reef. Credit: Tye Kindinger

But things are not always that simple. Tye Kindinger realized that lionfish (or any predator that feeds on more than one species) could influence prey populations in several different ways.  For the present study, Kindinger considered two different prey species – the fairy basslet (Gramma loreto) and the blackcap basslet (Gramma melacara). Both species feed primarily on zooplankton, with larger individuals monopolizing prime feeding locations at the front of reef ledges, while smaller individuals are forced to feed at the back of ledges where plankton are less abundant, and predators are more common.  Thus there is intense competition both within and between these two species for food and habitat. Kindinger reasoned that if lionfish depleted one of these competing species more than the other, they could be indirectly benefiting the second species by releasing it from competition.


Fairy basslet (top) and blackcap basslet (bottom). Credit Tye Kindinger.

For her PhD research, Kindinger set up an experiment in which she manipulated both lionfish abundance and the abundance of each basslet species.  She created high density and low density lionfish reefs by capturing most of the lionfish from one reef and transferring them to another (a total of three reefs of each density).  She manipulated basslet density on each reef by removing either fairy or blackcap basslets from an isolated reef ledge within a particular reef.  This experimental design allowed her to separate out the effects of predation by lionfish from the effects of competition between the two basslet species.  Most of her results pertained to juveniles, which were about 2 cm long and favored by the lionfish.


Alex Davis

Alex Davis captures and removes basslets beneath a ledge. Credit Tye Kindinger.

Kindinger measured basslet abundance in grams of basslet biomass per m2 of ledge area.  When lionfish were abundant, juvenile fairy basslet abundance decreased over the eight weeks of the experiment (dashed line) but did not change when lionfish were rare (solid line).  In contrast, juvenile blackcap basslet populations remained steady over the course of the study, whether lionfish were abundant or rare. Kindinger concluded that lionfish were eating more fairy basslets.


Abundance of juvenile fairy basslets (left) and blackcap basslets (right) as measured as change in overall biomass. Triangles represent high lionfish reefs and circles are low lionfish reefs.

Competition is intense between the two basslet species, and can affect feeding position and growth rate.  Kindinger’s manipulations of lionfish density and basslet density demonstrate that fairy basslet foraging and growth depend primarily on the abundance of their blackcap competitors. When competitor blackcap basslets are common (approach a biomass value of 1.0 on the x-axis on the two graphs below), fairy basslets tend to move towards the back of the ledge, and grow more slowly.  This occurs at both high and low lionfish densities.


Change in feeding position (top) and growth rate (bottom) of fairy basslets in relation to competitor (blackcap basslet) abundance (x-axis) and lionfish abundance (triangles = high, circles = low)

In contrast, blackcap basslets had an interactive response to fairy basslet and lionfish abundance. Let’s look first at low lionfish densities (circles in the graphs below).  You can see that blackcap basslets tend to move towards the back of the ledge (poor feeding position) at high competitor (fairy basslet) biomass, and also grow very slowly.  But when lionfish are common (triangles in the graphs below), blackcap basslets retain a favorable feeding position and grow quickly, even at high fairy basslet abundance.


Change in feeding position (top) and growth rate (bottom) of blackcap basslets in relation to competitor (fairy basslet) abundance (x-axis) and lionfish abundance (triangles = high, circles = low)

By preying primarily on fairy basslets, lionfish are changing the dynamics of competition between the two species. The diagram below nicely summarizes the process.  Larger fish of both species forage near the front of the ledge, while smaller fish forage further back.  But there is an even distribution of both species.  Focusing on juveniles, they are relatively evenly distributed in the rear portion of the ledge (Figure B).  When fairy basslets are removed experimentally, the juvenile blackcap basslets move to the front of the rear portion of the ledge, as they are released from competition with fairy basslets (Figure D).  Finally, when lionfish are abundant, fairy basslets are eaten more frequently, and juvenile blackcaps benefit from the lack of competition (Figure F)


Kindinger was very surprised with the results of this study because she knew the lionfish were generalist predators that eat both basslet species, so she expected lionfish to have similar effects on both prey species.  But they didn’t, and she does not know why.  Do lionfish prefer to eat fairy basslets due to increased conspicuousness or higher activity levels, or are blackcap basslets better at escaping lionfish predators? Whatever the mechanism, this study highlights that indirect effects of predation by invasive species can influence prey populations in unexpected ways.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Kindinger, T. L. (2018). Invasive predator tips the balance of symmetrical competition between native coral‐reef fishes. Ecology99(4), 792-800. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Mangroves partner with rats in China

Many of us have seen firsthand the havoc that invasive plants can wreak on ecosystems.  We are accustomed to think of native plants as unable to defend themselves, much like a skinny little kid surrounded by a group of playground bullies. ‘Not so fast’ says Yihui Zhang.  As it turns out, many native plants can defend themselves against invasions, and they do so with the help of unlikely allies.

In southern China, mangrove marshes are being invaded by the salt marsh cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, which is native to the eastern USA coastline. Cordgrass seeds can float into light gaps among the mangroves, and then germinate and choke out mangrove seedlings.  However, intact mangrove forests can resist cordgrass invasion.  Zhang and his colleagues wanted to know how they resist.

mangrove-Spartina ecotone

Cordgrass (pale green) meets mangrove (bright green) as viewed from space. Credit: Yihui Zhang.

Cordgrass was introduced into China in 1979 to reduce coastal erosion.  It proved up to the task, quickly transforming mudflats into dense cordgrass stands, and choking out much of the native plant community.  Dense mangrove forests grow near river channels that enter the ocean, and are considerably taller than their cordgrass competitors.  The last player in this interaction is a native rat, Rattus losea, which often nests on mangrove canopies above the high tide level. At the research site (Yunxiao), many rat nests were built on mangroves, using cordgrass leaves and stems as the building material.


Rat nest constructed from cordgrass shoots rests upon a mangrove tree.  Credit Yihui Zhang.

Zhang and his colleagues suspected that cordgrass invasion into the mangrove forest was prevented by both competition from mangroves and herbivory by rats on cordgrass.

Baby rat in the nest

Baby rats in their nest. Credit Yihui Zhang.


To test this hypothesis, they built cages to exclude rats from three different habitats: open mudflats (primarily pure stands of cordgrass), the forest edge, and the mangrove forest understory, (with almost no cordgrass). They set up control plots that also had cages, but that still allowed rats to enter.


Arrow points to resprouting cordgrass. Credit Yihui Zhang.

The researchers planted 6 cordgrass ramets (genetically identical pieces of live plant) in each plot and then monitored rodent grazing, resprouting of original shoots following grazing, and shoot survival over the next 70 days.

They discovered that the cages worked; no rats grazed inside the cages.  But in the control plots, grazing was highest in the forest understory and lowest in the mudflats (Top figure below).  Most important, both habitat type and exposure to grazing influenced cordgrass survival.  In the understory, rodent grazing was very important; only one ramet survived in the control plots, while 46.7% of ramets survived if rats were excluded.  In the other two habitats, grazing did not affect ramet survival, which was very high with or without grazing (Middle figure). Rodent grazing effectively eliminated resprouting of ramets in the understory, but not in the other two habitats (Bottom figure).


Impact of rat grazing on cordgrass in the field study in three different habitats.  Top figure is % of stems grazed, middle figure is transplant survival, and bottom figure is resprouting after grazing (there was no grazing in the rodent exclusion plots). Error bars are 1 standard error. Different letters above bars indicate significant differences between treatments.

The researchers suspected that low light levels in the understory were preventing cordgrass from resprouting after rat grazing. This was most easily tested in the greenhouse, where light conditions could be effectively controlled.  High light was 80% the intensity of outdoor sunlight, medium light was 33% (about what strikes the forest edge) and low light was 10% the intensity of outdoor sunlight (similar to mangrove understory light).  Rat grazing was simulated by cutting semi-circles on the stembase, pealing back the leaf sheath, and digging out the leaf tissue. Cordgrass ramets were planted in large pots, exposed to different light and grazing treatments, and monitored for survival, growth and resprouting following grazing.

Greenhouse setup

Cordgrass growing in greenhouse under different light treatments. Credit: Yihui Zhang.

Zhang and his colleagues found that simulated grazing sharply reduced cordgrass survival from 85% to 7% at low light intensity, but had no impact on survival at medium or high light intensities.  Cordgrass did not resprout after simulated grazing at low light intensity, in contrast to approximately 50% resprouting at medium and high light intensity.


Survival (top) and resprouting (bottom) of cordgrass following simulated grazing in the greenhouse experiment.

The researchers conclude that grazing by rats and shading by mangroves are two critical factors that make mangroves resistant to cordgrass invasion. Rats tend to build their nests near the mangrove forest edge, so it is not clear how far into the forest the rat effect extends. Rats do prefer to forage in the understory (rather than right along the edge), presumably because the understory helps to protect them from predators.  In essence, mangroves compete directly with cordgrass by shading them out, and also indirectly by attracting cordgrass-eating rats. Conservation biologists need to be aware of both direct and indirect effects when designing management programs for protecting endangered ecosystems such as mangrove forests.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Zhang, Y. , Meng, H. , Wang, Y. and He, Q. (2018), Herbivory enhances the resistance of mangrove forest to cordgrass invasion. Ecology. Accepted Author Manuscript. doi:10.1002/ecy.2233. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Plant communities bank against drought

Many plants shed their young embryos (seeds) into the soil where they may accumulate in a dormant (non-growth) state over years before germinating (resuming growth and development). Ecologists describe this collection of seeds as a seed bank.  Marina LaForgia describes how scientists were able to germinate and grow to maturity some 32,000 year old Silene stenophylla seeds that was stashed, probably by an ancient squirrel, in the permafrost! With increased climatic variation predicted by most climate models, she wanted to know how environmental variability might affect germination of particular groups of species within a community.  In addition, she and her colleagues recognized that most ecological studies investigate community responses to disturbances by looking at the aboveground species.  It stands to reason that we should consider the below-surface seed bank as a window to how a community might respond in the future.


Some seedlings coming up from the seed bank. Credit:Marina LaForgia.

Seed banks can be viewed as a bet-hedging strategy that spreads out germination over several (or many) years to reduce the probability of catastrophic population decline in response to one severe disturbance, such as drought, flood or fire. In some California annual grassland communities, species diversity is dominated by annual forbs – nonwoody flowering plants that are not grasses. Many forbs produce seeds that can lie dormant in the seed banks for several years. Though these forbs are the most diverse group, there are also about 15 species of exotic annual grasses that dominate the landscape in abundance and cover. These grasses dominate because they produce up to 60,000 seeds per m2, they grow very quickly, and they build up a layer of thatch that suppresses native forbs. However, seeds from these grasses cannot lie dormant in the seed bank for very long.



Area of field site dominated by Delphinium (purple flower) and Lasthenia (yellow flower).  Looking closely you can also see some tall grasses rising. Credit Marina LaForgia.

How is drought affecting these two major components of the plant community? LaForgia and her colleagues answered this question by collecting seeds from a northern California grassland at the University of California McLaughlin Natural Reserve in fall 2012 (beginning of the drought) and fall 2014 (near the end of the drought). They used a 5-cm diameter 10-cm deep cylindrical sampler  to collect soil and associated seeds from 80 different plots.  The researchers also used these same plots to estimate aboveground-cover, and to identify the aboveground species that were present. The research team germinated and identified more than 11,000 seeds.


Plants germinating in the greenhouse. Credit Marina LaForgia.

The researchers knew from previous work on aboveground vegetation that exotic annual grasses declined very sharply in response to drought.  In contrast, the native forbs did relatively well, in part depending on their specific leaf area (SLA) – a measure of relative leaf size, with low SLA plants conserving water more efficiently. It seemed reasonable that these same patterns would be reflected belowground. Recall that most grass seeds are incapable of extended dormancy, while many forbs can remain dormant for several years. Consequently, LaForgia and her colleagues expected that grass abundance in the seed bank would decline more sharply than would forb abundance. In addition, they expected that high SLA forbs would not do as well as low SLA forbs during drought.

The researchers discovered very sharp differences between the two groups over the course of the drought. Exotic annual grasses declined sharply in the seed bank, while native annual forb abundance tripled.  Aboveground cover of grasses declined considerably, while aboveground cover of forbs increased modestly.  Clearly the exotic grasses were suffering from the drought, while the forbs were doing quite well.


(a) Seed bank abundance of grasses (red circles) and forbs (blue triangles) at beginning of drought (2012) and near end of drought (2014). (b) Percent cover of grasses (red circles) and forbs (blue triangles) at beginning of drought (2012) and near end of drought (2014). Data are based on samples from 80 plots. Error bars indicate one standard error.

We can see these differences on an individual species basis, with most of the grasses declining modestly or sharply in abundance, while most of the forbs increased.


Mean change in seed bank abundance per species based on 15 exotic grass species and 81 native forb species.

It is not surprising that the grasses do so poorly during the drought.  Presumably, less water causes poorer germination, growth, survival and seed production.  In addition, because grass seeds have a low capacity for dormancy, grass abundance will tend to decrease in the seed bank very quickly with such a low infusion of new seeds.

But why are the forbs actually doing better with less water available to them?  One explanation is that grass abundance and cover declined sharply, causing the forbs to experience reduced competition with grasses that might otherwise inhibit their growth, development and reproductive success. The tripling of native forbs in the seed bank was much greater than the 14% increase in aboveground forb cover.  The researchers reason that the drought caused many of the forb seeds to remain dormant, leading to them building up in the seed bank. This was particularly the case for low SLA forbs, which increased much more than did high SLA forbs in the seed bank.

We can understand exotic grass behavior in the context of their place of origin – the Mediterranean basin, which tends to have wet winters.  In that environment, natural selection favored individuals that germinated quickly, grew fast and made lots of babies. Since their introduction to California in the mid 1800s, 2014 was the driest year on record.  It will be fascinating to see if these exotic grasses can recover when, and if, wetter conditions return.  Can we bank on it?

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is LaForgia, M.L., Spasojevic, M.J., Case, E.J., Latimer, A.M. and Harrison, S.P., 2018. Seed banks of native forbs, but not exotic grasses, increase during extreme drought. Ecology99 (4): 896-903. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Too much of a good thing is killing Monarch butterflies

There was a time in the mid-Pleisticine when a photo of an ecological event was an awesome novelty, and a movie of an ecological event even more so.  Dodderers of an ecological bent (myself included), can vividly recall viewing a series of photos or a movie, either in a seminar or in an ancient ecology text, of a blue jay consuming a monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.  Consumption is immediately followed by explosive vomiting, as the cardenolides within the monarch butterfly claim another victim.  The monarch sequesters these cardenolide toxins from its larval food (milkweed), and incorporates them into its tissues as a means of protecting itself from predators – presumably blue jays learn from this very aversive experience.  I should point out that the individual sacrificial butterfly enjoys no fitness from this learning event – which raises some evolutionary questions we will not explore at the present.

Karen Oberhauser

Five instars (stages of development) of monarch caterpillars on a milkweed leaf. Credit: Karen Oberhauser

Rather we turn our attention to the relationship between milkweed, monarchs, and climate change. In several places in this blog we’ve talked about how climate change has influenced the behavior or physiology of a single species. For example, my first blog (Jan 31, 2017) discusses how increasing temperatures create more females in a loggerhead turtle population. But there are fewer studies that explore how climate change influences the ecological landscape, ultimately affecting interactions between species.  Along these lines, Matt Faldyn wondered if increased air temperature would change the chemical constitution of milkweed in a way that might influence monarch populations.  As he describes, “With milkweed toxicity, there is a ‘goldilocks’ zone where monarchs prefer to feed on milkweed that produce enough toxins in order to sequester these (cardenolide) chemicals as an antipredator/antiparasite defense, while also avoiding reaching a tipping point of toxicity where feeding on very toxic milkweeds negatively impacts monarch fitness.” He expected that at higher temperatures, milkweed would become stressed, and be physiologically unable to sustain normal levels of cardenolide production.


Monarch butterfly feeds on a native milkweed, Asclepias incarnata. Credit: Teune at the English Language Wikipedia.

For their research, Faldyn and his colleagues worked with two milkweed species.  Asclepias incarnata is a common, native milkweed found throughout the monarch butterfly’s range in the eastern and southeastern United States.  Asclepias curassavica is an exotic species that has become established in the southern United States.  In contrast to A. incarnata, A. curassavica does not die back over the winter months; consequently some monarch populations are no longer migratory, relying on A. curassavicato provide them with a year round food supply.


The exotic milkweed, Asclepias curassavica. Credit: 2016 Jee & Rani Nature Photography (License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

To protect against herbivory, milkweeds have two primary chemical deterrants: (1) the already-mentioned cardenolides, which are toxic steroids that disrupt cell membrane function, and (2) release of sticky latex, which can gum up caterpillar mouthparts and actually trap young caterpillars.

field_noborderii.jpgThe researchers wanted to simulate climate change under field conditions, so they created open-top chambers with plexiglass plates that functioned much like mini-greenhouses, into which they placed one milkweed plant that was covered with butterfly netting.  This setup raised ambient temperatures by about 3°C during the day and 0.2°C at nighttime.  Control plots were single milkweed plants with butterfly netting. Half of the plants were native milkweed, and the other half were the exotic species.

For their experiments, Faldyn and his colleagues introduced 80 monarch caterpillars (one per plant) and allowed them to feed normally until they pupated.  Pupae were brought into the lab and allowed to metamorphose into adults.


Matt Faldyn holds two monarch butterflies in the laboratory. Credit Matt Faldyn.

At normal (ambient) temperatures, monarchs survived somewhat better on exotic milkweed.  But at warmer temperatures, there is a strikingly different picture. Monarch survival is unaffected by warmer temperatures on native milkweed, but is sharply reduced by warmer temperatures on exotic milkweed (top graph below). The few that managed to survive warm temperatures on exotic milkweed grew much smaller, based on their body mass and forewing length (middle and bottom graph below)


Survival (top), adult mass (middle) and forewing length (bottom) of monarch butterflies raised under normal (ambient) and warmed temperatures.  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.

Both milkweed species increased production of both types of chemicals over the course of the experiment. But by the end of the experiment, the exotic species released 3-times the quantity of latex and 13-times the quantity of cardenolides than did the native milkweed species.


Average amount of latex released at the beginning and end of the experiment.  Error bars are 95% confidence intervals.


Average cardenolide concentration at the beginning and end of the experiment.

The researchers argue that the exotic milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, may become an ecological trap for monarch butterflies, in that it attracts monarchs to feed on it, but will, under future warmer conditions, result in dramatically reduced monarch survival. Interestingly, these results are not what Faldyn originally expected; recall that he anticipated that temperature-stressed plants would reduce cardenolide production. The tremendous increase in cardenolide production in exotic milkweed at warmer temperatures may simply be too much toxin for the monarchs to process. The researchers predict that as climate warms, milkweed ranges will expand further north into Canada, and lead to northward shifts of monarch populations as well.  They urge nurseries to emphasize the distribution of native rather than exotic milkweed, so that monarchs will be less likely to become victims of this ecological trap.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Faldyn, M. J., Hunter, M. D. and Elderd, B. D. (2018), Climate change and an invasive, tropical milkweed: an ecological trap for monarch butterflies. Ecology. doi:10.1002/ecy.2198. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.