Shifts in seawater chemistry disrupt trophic links within a simple shoreline food web

Authors: Brittany M. Jellison and Brian Gaylord 

Marine intertidal systems have long served as focal environments for ecological research, yet these environments are changing due to the entry of human-produced carbon dioxide into seawater, which causes ‘ocean acidification’ (OA). One component of OA is a decline in seawater pH, an alteration known to disrupt organism behaviors underlying predator–prey interactions. To date, however, studies examining OA’s effects on feeding relationships consider predominantly simple direct interactions between consumers and their food sources. Here, we extended these established approaches to test how decreased seawater pH might alter cascading effects that span tiered linkages in trophic networks. We employed a model shoreline food web incorporating a sea star predator (Leptasterias hexactis), an herbivorous snail prey (Tegula funebralis), and a common macroalgal resource for the prey (Mazzaella flaccida). Results demonstrate direct negative effects of low pH on anti-predator behavior of snails, but also weakened indirect interactions, driven by increased snail consumption of macroalgae even as sea stars ate more snails. This latter outcome arose because low pH induced ‘foolhardy’ behaviors in snails, whereby their flight responses were supplanted by other activities that allowed for foraging. These findings highlight the potential for human-induced changes in seawater chemistry to perturb prey behaviors and trophic dynamics with accompanying community-level consequences.

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