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Climate Change

The Northward Expansion: Tropical Fish Settling the Temperate Seagrass Prairie

Paper: Heck, K.L., Jr., F.J. Fodrie, S. Madsen, C.J. Baillie, and D.A. Byron. 2015. Seagrass consumption by native and a tropically associated fish species: potential impacts of the tropicalization of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Marine Ecology Progress Series 520: 165-173. Doi: 10.3354/meps11104

Featured image source: Jim Garin

Emerald Parrotfish (Nicholsina usta) Photo used with permission from Carol Cox www.MBARA.org

Emerald Parrotfish (Nicholsina usta)
Photo used with permission from Carol Cox
www.MBARA.org

 

Background

With global temperatures on the rise, many organisms are shifting their range toward the poles. In the Northern Hemisphere, that means many species are striking out from their historical homelands and heading north for the new frontier. In the Northern Gulf of Mexico (GOM), tropical species (fish, manatees, green sea turtles, corals, and black mangroves) are beginning to move into the northern warm-temperate zone. The temperate species can’t shift north in response. They’re blocked by North America! So what will happen as the tropical and temperate species are forced to interact and utilize the same habitat? Researchers wanted to know what a future seagrass habitat might look like under northward expansion. We all know from history that whenever people settled new areas, we changed the habitat. Therefore, they hypothesized that the increasing presence of the emerald parrotfish (Nicholsina usta) could affect the structure and function of the temperate seagrass habitat.

 

The Study

To begin to answer that question, the researchers determined and compared seagrass consumption rates of the emerald parrotfish to those of pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) and the planehead filefish (Stephanolepis hispidus). The latter two species are natives and two of the northern GOM’s usual suspects of seagrass eaters.

Meet the cast of characters:

Emerald Parrotfish, used with permission from Jim Garin

Emerald Parrotfish (Nicholsina usta). Photo used with permission from Jim Garin: http://biogeodb.stri.si.edu/caribbean/en/gallery/specie/3912

Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides) http://bluewaterbaymarina.com/pinfish/

Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides)
http://bluewaterbaymarina.com/pinfish/

Planehead Filefish (Stephanolepsis hispidus) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stephanolepis_hispidus.jpg

Planehead Filefish (Stephanolepsis hispidus)
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stephanolepis_hispidus.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First, how much seagrass can one fish contain? To find out, the researchers performed stomach content analysis. They caught these fish (152 pinfish, 142 filefish, and 48 parrotfish), measured and weighed their catches and then dissected the stomachs and intestines. Then they weighed the partially digested gut contents.

How long does it take the food to become poop? (Or in scientific terms, what is the evacuation time for each fish species?) 25 fish of each species were starved, placed in individual tanks, then fed 3 seagrass shoots and 3 seagrass leaves. Parrotfish and filefish received turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) while pinfish received shoalgrass (Halodule wrightii). The fish was allowed to feed for 4 hours. The leaves and shoots were photographed before and after the trial and areas determined for later analysis. After the feeding trial, fecal materials were collected at regular intervals and weighed. These weights were used to calculate the time it takes to completely eliminate all the seagrass consumed.

How quickly do the fish consume seagrass? Two daily consumption rates were estimated. Remember those feeding trials and the photographs? The before/after differences in leaf and shoot area were used to calculate one consumption rate by scaling up how much was eaten in 4 hours to a 12 hour feeding day (just multiply by 3!). The other used the amount of material evacuated in a given time period and then also scaled up to a 12 hour feeding day.

Once they determined the consumption rates, they compared across the three species. They also examined previous scientific literature to extrapolate what these consumption rates would mean for the habitat.

 

Results

What did they find?

1) Based on gut content analysis, parrotfish and pinfish consumed about 10 times the weight of seagrass eaten by filefish (Fig. 1).

 

Figure 1. Emerald parrotfish and Pinfish both have more seagrass in their digestive tracts than do filefish. The gray bars indicate the mean and the capped lines represent standard error. The “A” indicates that these two species have similar amounts in their stomach while the single B indicates Filefish have a different amount on average.

Figure 1. Emerald parrotfish and Pinfish both have more seagrass in their digestive tracts than do filefish. The gray bars indicate the mean and the capped lines represent standard error. The “A” indicates that these two species have similar amounts in their stomach while the single B indicates Filefish have a different amount on average.

2) Parrotfish consume more seagrass than either of the native species (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. The consumption rate of parrotfish is far higher than that of either pinfish or filefish. The gray bars indicate the mean and the capped lines represent standard error. The two “B”s indicate that pinfish and filefish consume similar amounts of seagrass based on feeding trials.

Figure 2. The consumption rate of parrotfish is far higher than that of either pinfish or filefish. The gray bars indicate the mean and the capped lines represent standard error. The two “B”s indicate that pinfish and filefish consume similar amounts of seagrass based on feeding trials.

3) Parrotfish also clear their guts faster than the pinfish and filefish. Their evacuation rate was 20-80% or 100-60% more rapid than pinfish and filefish, respectively (Table 1).

Seagrass Table 1

Table 1. Based on the time for complete evacuation (in hours), parrotfish clear their guts much more quickly than either of the native seagrass consumers. Instantaneous evacuation rate refers to the slope of equation that estimates their evacuation rate.

Filefish consume relatively little seagrass. And even though pinfish stomachs contained similar amounts of seagrass as the parrotfish, their impact on seagrasses is lower. Pinfish eat less and retain food in their gut for longer time periods. This means parrotfish consume far more seagrass than both study companions.

 

Implications

The authors suggest that a sustained increase in emerald parrotfish could be problematic. If parrotfish abundance parallels that of the pinfish, they could consume 16-25% of daily seagrass production. Pinfish by comparison only consume 2-9% of the seagrass’ daily production. Seagrass canopy height and density is thereby expected to decrease with increasing parrotfish abundance. More of the seagrass will be directly consumed rather than turned into detritus; therefore more of the energy will flow up to the grazers. Less detritus would support fewer detritivores, including microbes, worms, and clams, as well as predators that feed on them, like rays. In addition, by reducing seagrass habitat, fewer fish, especially juveniles that utilize seagrasses as a nursery habitat, can be sheltered and fed. That may potentially lead to a decline in the number of adults of those species.

Ultimately, the authors expect continued warming and northward range expansion by tropical herbivores to reduce seagrass cover, increase the movement of energy through the grazers, and diminish the nursery habitat and populations of species that rely on them. Combined, those habitat alterations could drastically alter the food web dynamics. Interestingly enough, such changes would actually reflect a state closer to that of historical seagrass habitats in which large herbivorous sea cows were still numerous.

There are still many other questions about the species interactions that may change and develop as the GOM becomes more tropicalized. Will new predator-prey relationships form between temperate and historically tropical species? How will potential competition for space and food factor in? But, this study moved the state of knowledge forward. This study integrated the results of a consumption experiment with knowledge from previous literature to project what may happen as more seagrass herbivores move north. Such studies may have interesting applications for future habitat management plans, especially for places like the GOM where there’s a huge barrier to range expansion leading to a melting pot of marine fauna.

Seagrass Habitat http://www.futuretimeline.net/blog/2013/08/19.htm#.VOo22caspIs

Seagrass Habitat
http://www.futuretimeline.net/blog/2013/08/19.htm#.VOo22caspIs

Note: Figures and Tables used came from the original research paper.

Rebecca Flynn
I am a recent M.S. graduate from the University of Rhode Island, where I studied the impacts of anchor damage to coral reefs. I now work in southwest Florida, contributing to the management of coastal waters. I am a conservation biologist to the core, fascinated by the problems of human impacts and determined to help find solutions! I enjoy spending my free time outside and/or reading.

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