Seagrass stimulated by the return of the green turtle

Christopher Columbus’s journal describes how his ships had to plow through masses of sea turtles to reach the shore of Caribbean Islands. Since the 15th century, populations of the green turtle (Chelonia mydas) were nearly extirpated, primarily to feed the expanding human population. Recent conservation programs have led to a partial recovery in the Caribbean, but current green turtle populations are still a small fraction of what they were historically.

The green turtle, Chelonia mydas.

While the green turtle recovery is good news for turtles, it’s not clear how their favorite food in the Caribbean, the seagrass Thalassia testudinum feels about green turtle resurgence.  When green turtle populations were at their lowest, many lush seagrass meadows performed ecosystem services such as sequestering carbon via photosynthesis, stabilizing marine sediment  and providing important nursery habitats for commercial fisheries.  

Alexandra Gulick and her colleagues were inspired by a similar situation that has been occurring in terrestrial ecosystems.  Since around 1960, wildebeest and buffalo populations in the Serengeti have increased sharply – a result of the sharp decline (or possible elimination) of the rinderpest virus, which previously had controlled the abundance of those two large mammals.  The increase in buffalo and wildebeest populations has profoundly affected the distribution, abundance and productivity of grasses and trees, which of course impacts the entire ecosystem.  Gulick wondered whether the return of green turtles was an analogous situation, in which increases in green turtles would dramatically reduce seagrass meadows and alter ecosystem functioning.

Alexandra Gulick assisted the National Park Service and the U.S. Geological Survey with a mark recapture study of juvenile green turtles. Credit: Kristen Hart.

Gulick and her colleagues were looking for evidence of compensatory growth – increased seagrass growth in response to grazing. Green turtles use a cultivation grazing strategy, in which they select and repeatedly crop the same meadows.  Such behavior would make sense if grazed meadows compensated for grazing by producing biomass at a higher rate, or by producing leaves that were more digestible or nutritious.

A sharp boundary between a grazed and ungrazed seagrass meadow. Credit: Alexandra Gulick.

Working at the Buck Island Reef National Monument, off St. Croix, Virgin Islands, the researchers studied both grazed and ungrazed seagrass meadows, in both shallow water (3-4 meters) and deeper water (9-10 meters). They placed 129 turtle-proof exclosures over grazed and ungrazed meadows during August-October 2017 and January-February 2018. After 7-10 days they measured how much growth had occurred in both types of meadows.  

Divers set up an exclosure in a grazed meadow at Buck Island Reef National Monument. Credit: Alexandra Gulick.

The data table below shows some good evidence for compensatory growth in grazed meadows, particularly in shallow water, but also in some of the deep water meadows. Grass blades grew longer and achieved greater surface area in grazed meadows in shallow water, and also in deep water during the winter (their growth rate was slightly greater during the summer as well, but this increase was not statistically significant).  However, the seagrass in grazed meadows added much less biomass (dried weight) per day per m2.

Seagrass growth in grazed and unglazed meadows at different water depths and seasons. Mass is the increase in biomass (dry weight) per m2 per day. Statistically significant differences between grazed and unglazed meadows are boldfaced.

How can a seagrass blade have more surface area but less biomass?  There are at least two answers to this question.  First, seagrass biomass was measured on a per m2 basis, and ungrazed meadows had more blades per m2. Second, while achieving greater surface area, the seagrass blades from grazed meadows were much thinner, so when dried they weighed much less.  This is important, because putting their resources into surface area allows the seagrass blades to achieve a high photosynthetic rate, which should allow them to recover relatively quickly from sea turtle grazing.  The bottom row in the data table above is a measure of production (measured as mass growth) in relation to initial biomass (P:B).  You can see that P:B in deep water is similar in grazed vs, ungrazed meadows, while P:B in shallow meadows is substantially greater in grazed meadows. This indicates that despite continuous cropping by sea turtles, the grazed seagrass can recover quite nicely.

Gulick and her colleagues wanted to know whether the intensity of grazing might affect productivity.  They counted the number of grazed vs. ungrazed shoots, and the length of grazed vs. ungrazed blades for each sample site, and used those data to calculate grazing intensity.  The researchers then generated a model that calculated P:B in relation to grazing intensity.  The model shows that high grazing intensity increased P:B, indicating that grazing is stimulating increased leaf tissue production.

Increase in production (P:B) in relation to grazing intensity. Dashed lines indicate 95% confidence interval of the linear model.

These findings indicate that increased grazing intensity by recovering sea turtle populations is sustainable in Caribbean seagrass meadows, as seagrass growth was still stimulated at relatively high grazing intensities. Many of the meadows had been grazed continuously for at least two years, and still showed no evidence of being overly stressed by the attention that turtles had given them.  Presumably, compensatory growth by seagrass is an adaptation resulting from the co-evolution of seagrass with green turtles and other hungry herbivores. In support of this coevolution scenario, seagrass in grazed areas reduces the height of its flowers and fruits, reducing consumption of these structures by green turtles, and allowing it to achieve reproductive success.  As green turtle populations continue to recover, it is likely that seagrass meadows will be grazed more heavily, but, at least in most cases, will be able to successfully compensate for even greater grazing levels.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Gulick, A. G.,  Johnson, R. A.,  Pollock, C. G.,  Hillis‐Starr, Z.,  Bolten, A. B., and  Bjorndal, K. A..  2020. Recovery of a large herbivore changes regulation of seagrass productivity in a naturally grazed Caribbean ecosystem. Ecology 101( 12):e03180. 10.1002/ecy.3180.  Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Field gentian – when it’s good to be eaten

We tend to think of plants as victims – after all any interested herbivore can simply walk, fly or crawl over to its favorite plant, and begin munching. But not so fast! In reality, plants have a variety of ways they can make life difficult for potential herbivores. Plants can escape herbivores by simply growing in places that are not easily accessible (such as in cracks, or high enough to be out of a herbivore’s reach) or by growing at a time of year when herbivores are away from the plant’s habitat. Plants also use mechanical defenses such as thorns or a diverse array of chemical defenses to thwart overzealous herbivores. A third approach – tolerance – can take many forms. For example, following attack by a herbivore some plants can increase photosynthetic rates or reduce the time until seed production . Tommy Lennartsson and his colleagues were interested in a particular form of tolerance that ecologists call overcompensation, in which damaged plants produce more seeds than undamaged plants.


Herbivores in action. Notice the difference in vegetation height inside and outside the pasture. Credit: Tommy Lennartsson.

Overcompensation is an evolutionary puzzle, because undisturbed plants produce fewer offspring than partially eaten plants. That outcome seems to fly in the face of the scientific principle that natural selection favors individuals with traits that promote reproductive success. Lennartsson and his colleagues investigated this evolutionary puzzle by comparing two subspecies of the herbaceous field gentian Gentianella campestris. The first subspecies, Gentianella campestris campestris (which we’ll just call campestris), has relatively unbranched shoot architecture when intact, growing to about 20 cm tall, but produces multiple fruiting branches when the dominant apical meristem is eaten. The second subspecies, Gentianella campestris islandica (which we’ll call islandica), is much shorter (about 5-10 cm tall), and always has a multi-branched architecture.


Two subspecies of field gentian – campestris (left) and islandica (right).

Environmental conditions and soils can vary dramatically, even on a small spatial scale. The field site was a gently-sloped grassland in Sweden that had coarser, dryer soil on the ridge, and finer, wetter and richer soil in the valley. This created a productivity gradient, with taller vegetation in the valley. The average  height of all the vegetation was 15 cm in the high-productivity valley, 10 cm on the medium-productivity slope and 5 cm on the low-productivity ridge.

The researchers used this natural variation to set up an experiment that would allow them to explore hypotheses about why an undisturbed campestris is less successful than one that is partially-eaten. One hypothesis (the overcompensation hypothesis) is that campestris restrains branching to conserve resources, so that when it is grazed it has plenty of resources in reserve to be used for regrowth and the production of prolific branches, flowers and seeds. Limited branching and limited seed production of ungrazed campestris are simply a cost of tolerance, while overcompensation after damage maximizes reproductive success. A second hypothesis (the competition hypothesis) is that restrained branching allows the plant to grow tall, so it can compete better in ungrazed pastures than can the much shorter islandica. These two hypotheses are not mutually exclusive.

To test these two hypotheses, the researchers set up 2 X 2 meter experimental plots in the valley (18 plots), slope (12 plots) and the ridge (6 plots). They planted 2000 seeds per subspecies in each plot, which ultimately yielded about 20 plants of each subspecies per plot. Of course there were many other neighboring plant species in these plots. In the high productivity plots (valley), the neighboring plants in six plots were clipped to a height of 12 cm, six plots to 8 cm and six plots to 4 cm. In the medium productivity plots (which naturally only grew to 10 cm), the researchers cut neighboring plants to 8 cm in 6 plots and 4 cm in six plots. Finally, in the low productivity plots, the researchers cut neighboring plants to 4 cm in all six plots. In mid July, half of the gentian plants in each plot were clipped to the same height as the surrounding vegetation, while the remainder were not clipped.


Experimental plots from the valley (left), slope (middle) and ridge (right).  Black squares represent plots where neighboring plants were clipped to 12 cm, grey squares to 8 cm, and clear squares to 4 cm. Squares with slashes through them (left)  represent plots that were used for a different purpose.

The beauty of this experimental design, is that by counting seeds, the researchers could assess the reproductive success of both subspecies under conditions of high competition (when surrounded by tall neighbors) and low competition (when surrounded by shorter neighbors). At the same time, clipping the two subspecies allowed the researchers to simulate grazing in these different competitive environments. Lennartsson and his colleagues found that unclipped islandica did better than unclipped campestris when surrounded by short or medium height neighbors, but that islandica success plummeted when the neighbors were very tall (see the left graph below). Campestris reproductive success also dropped when surrounded by tall competitors, but not as much as did islandica, so that campestris produced twice as many seeds than islandica in the high competition environment (also the left graph).

When plants were clipped to simulate grazing, campestris outperformed islandica in all three competitive environments. Campestris actually produced more seeds when it was clipped than when it was not clipped in the low and medium competition environments. Thus campestris overcompensated for grazing under conditions of low and moderate competition (see the right graph below).


Mean (+ standard error) seed production for unclipped (left graph) and clipped (right graph) field gentian subspecies in relation to surrounding vegetation height.  Sample sizes are in bars.

The researchers collected data on growth rates, development, survival probabilities and reproductive success for both species under conditions of being clipped or unclipped at different levels of competition. They then used these data to create a population growth model in relation to the percentage of grazing (damage risk) at different levels of productivity. In these graphs, a stochastic growth rate of 1.0 (on the y-axis) indicates that the population is stable, above 1.0 indicates it will increase and below 1.0 indicates a declining population.


Population growth rate of both subspecies in relation to damage risk at different levels of productivity.  These models predict that the population will increase at growth rates above the dotted line (growth rate = 1.0) and decline below the dotted line.

This model shows that in high productivity environments, campestris always does better than islandica (top graph). However, the model predicts that islandica will decline at any damage level (note in the top graph that all islandica damage values yield a growth rate below 1.0), while campestris will also decline except for very high damage risks. In medium and low productivity populations (middle and bottom graphs), islandica does better than campestris when damage risk is low, but the reverse is true at high damage risk.

So how do these results relate to the two hypotheses for why an undisturbed campestris is less successful than one that is partially-eaten. Campestris overcompensated for damage by producing more seeds and having positive population growth under most levels of productivity. In contrast, islandica undercompensated when damaged, but produced more seeds than campestris when ungrazed, except for in the high productivity environment. These differences in responses support the hypothesis that restrained branching is favored by natural selection in environments where damage from grazing is common (the overcompensation hypothesis). But, the superior performance by campestris in productive ungrazed environments supports the competition hypothesis.

Can we generalize these findings to other plants? Lennartsson and his colleagues point out that many short-lived grassland plants can’t grow tall enough to be effective competitors for light. These plants are thus restricted to environments where the surrounding plants are not very tall. Two factors commonly create conditions where there are short neighboring plants: grazing and unproductive (low nutrient) soils. When grazing is widespread, tolerance mechanisms such as overcompensation are favored by natural selection. When soils are unproductive, unrestrained branching is favored. Therefore, Gentianella campestris provides us with a natural experiment for testing hypotheses about how natural selection acts on plants to promote their reproductive success in a variable environment.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Lennartsson, T., Ramula, S. and Tuomi, J. (2018), Growing competitive or tolerant? Significance of apical dominance in the overcompensating herb Gentianella campestris. Ecology, 99: 259–269. doi:10.1002/ecy.2101. 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.