Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Biology

First Advisor's Name

James Fourqurean

First Advisor's Title

Co-Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Ligia Collado-Vides

Second Advisor's Title

Co-Committee Chair

Third Advisor's Name

Deron Burkepile

Fourth Advisor's Name

Jennifer Rehage

Fifth Advisor's Name

James Heffernan

Keywords

herbivore, nutrient, primary producer, seagrass, coral reef, macroalgae, Diadema antillarum, Chelonia mydas, sea urchin, diversity

Date of Defense

2012

Abstract

Globally, human populations are increasing and coastal ecosystems are becoming increasingly impacted by anthropogenic stressors. As eutrophication and exploitation of coastal resources increases, primary producer response to these drivers becomes a key indicator of ecosystem stability. Despite the importance of monitoring primary producers such as seagrasses and macroalgae, detailed studies on the response of these benthic habitat components to drivers remain relatively sparse.

Utilizing a multi-faceted examination of turtle-seagrass and sea urchin-macroalgae consumer and nutrient dynamics, I elucidate the impact of these drivers in Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico. In Yal Ku Lagoon, macroalgae bioindicators signified high nutrient availability, which is important for further studies, but did not consistently follow published trends reflecting decreased δ15N content with distance from suspected source. In Akumal Bay, eutrophication and grazing by turtles and fishes combine to structure patches within the seagrass beds. Grazed seagrass patches had higher structural complexity and productivity than patches continually grazed by turtles and fishes. Results from this study indicate that patch abandonment may follow giving-up density theory, the first to be recorded in the marine environment. As Diadema antillarum populations recover after their massive mortality thirty years ago, the role these echinoids will have in reducing macroalgae cover and altering ecosystem state remains to be clear. Although Diadema antillarum densities within the coral reef ecosystem were comparable to other regions within the Caribbean, the echinoid population in Akumal Bay was an insufficient driver to prevent dominance of a turf-algal-sediment (TAS) state. After a four year study, declining coral cover coupled with increased algal cover suggests that the TAS-dominated state is likely to persist over time despite echinoid recovery. Studies on macroalgal diversity and nutrients within this same region of echinoids indicated diversity and nutrient content of macroalgae increased, which may further increase the persistence of the algal-dominated state.

This study provides valuable insight into the variable effects of herbivores and nutrients on primary producers within a tropical coastal ecosystem. Results from this work challenge many of the currently accepted theories on primary producer response to nutrients and herbivory while providing a framework for further studies into these dynamics.

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