• Spatial variation drives patterns of community composition and trophic relationships in a marine system

      Freestone, Amy; Cordes, Erik E.; Sanders, Robert W.; Russell, Michael P. (Temple University. Libraries, 2015)
      Examining how ecological processes are influenced by spatial variation can provide valuable insights into how communities are formed and how they may change in dynamic landscapes. In this thesis I address three objectives surrounding the spatial and temporal variation in species’ recruitment and predation, the influence of habitat isolation on consumer-resource relationships, and the influence of habitat fragmentation on a multi-trophic system. I used marine invertebrates, specifically crustaceans, bivalves, and sessile species as a model system. First, I address the spatial and temporal variation in local and regional processes in a multispecies assemblage of marine sessile invertebrates. Using diverse communities of marine sessile invertebrates as a model system I tested the hypothesis that spatial and temporal variation in recruitment and predation would shape local communities, and that both recruitment and predation would have significant effects on the abundance and structure of adult communities. I found that both recruitment and predation vary through time and space leading to the emergence of regional community divergence. I also address how habitat isolation interacts with top-down and bottom-up processes in seagrass ecosystems. Spatial structure of the habitat may mediate top-down and bottom-up controls of species abundances through decreased habitat connectivity and increased habitat isolation. I manipulated top down and bottom up processes by excluding mesograzers, adding resources, or altering both factors in isolated and contiguous patches of artificial seagrass. I then measured epiphyte recruitment, epiphyte abundances, and macroalgae abundance. I paired this with epiphyte sampling from isolated natural seagrass patches. I found that habitat isolation significantly decreased the abundance of epiphytes settling on seagrass blades due to dispersal limitation for epiphytic invertebrates. I found that consumers had strong effects on epiphyte biomass in continuous habitats, but not isolated habitats. Resource additions increased macroalgae cover and epiphyte biomass only in isolated habitats. The results suggest that isolated habitats may be nutrient limited and that top-down effects are stronger in continuous habitats, while bottom-up effects may dominate in isolated habitats. In my third objective, I address how habitat fragmentation may alter marine food webs. I examined whether predation rates, prey, and predator behavior differed between continuous and fragmented seagrass habitat in a multi-trophic context at two sites in Barnegat Bay, NJ. I hypothesized that blue crab predation rates and foraging would decrease in fragmented seascapes, due to a reduction in adult blue crab densities, increasing survival rates of juvenile blue crabs and hard clams. I expected hard clams to exhibit weaker predator avoidance behavior in fragmented habitats because of decreased predation. I found that species’ responses to fragmentation were different based on trophic level. Clams experienced higher predation and burrowed deeper in continuous habitats at both sites. Densities of blue crabs, the primary predator of hard clams, were higher in continuous habitats at both sites. Predation on juvenile blue crabs was significantly higher in fragmented seagrass at one site. Our results suggest that in fragmented seascapes, the impact of fragmentation on higher trophic level predators may drive predation rates and prey responses across the seascape, which may lead to trophic cascades in fragmented habitats.