Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Biology

First Advisor's Name

Michael R. Heithaus

First Advisor's Committee Title

Committee Chair

Second Advisor's Name

Craig A. Layman

Third Advisor's Name

James W. Fourqurean

Fourth Advisor's Name

Deron E. Burkepile

Fifth Advisor's Name

William T. Anderson

Keywords

teleost macrograzers, trophic cascades, behaviorally-mediated trophic cascades, top-down effects, seagrass ecosystem, predator encounter rates, teleost feeding ecology, guild-dependent impacts, transplant-exclosure experiments, herbivory

Date of Defense

6-27-2013

Abstract

Trophic downgrading of ecosystems necessitates a functional understanding of trophic cascades. Identifying the presence of cascades, and the mechanisms through which they occur, is particularly important for seagrass meadows, which are among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Shark Bay, Western Australia provides a model system to investigate the potential importance of top-down effects in a relatively pristine seagrass ecosystem. The role of megagrazers in the Shark Bay system has been previously investigated, but the role of macrograzers (i.e., teleosts), and their importance relative to megagrazers, remains unknown. The objective of my dissertation was to elucidate the importance of teleost macrograzers in transmitting top-down effects in seagrass ecosystems. Seagrasses and macroalgae were the main food of the abundant teleost Pelates octolineatus, but stable isotopic values suggested that algae may contribute a larger portion of assimilated food than suggested by gut contents. Pelates octolineatus is at risk from numerous predators, with pied cormorants (Phalacrocorax varius) taking the majority of tethered P. octolineatus. Using a combination of fish trapping and unbaited underwater video surveillance, I found that the relative abundance of P. octolineatus was greater in interior areas of seagrass banks during the cold season, and that the mean length of P. octolineatus was greater in these areas compared to along edges of banks. Finally, I used seagrass transplants and exclosure experiments to determine the relative effect of megagrazers and macrograzers on the establishment and persistence of three species of seagrasses in interior microhabitats. Teleost grazing had the largest impact on seagrass species with the highest nutrient content, and these impacts were primarily observed during the warm season. My findings are consistent with predictions of a behaviorally-mediated trophic cascade initiated by tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) and transmitted through herbivorous fishes and their predators.

Identifier

FI13080527

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