Prado, Patricia and Tomas, Fiona and Pinna, Stefania and Farina, Simone and Roca, Guillem and Ceccherelli, Giulia and Romero, Javier and Alcoverro, Teresa (2012) Habitat and scale shape the demographic fate of the keystone sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus in Mediterranean macrophyte communities. PLoS One, Vol. 7 (4), e35170. eISSN 1932-6203. Article.
Demographic processes exert different degrees of control as individuals grow, and in species that span several habitats and spatial scales, this can influence our ability to predict their population at a particular life-history stage given the previous life stage. In particular, when keystone species are involved, this relative coupling between demographic stages can have significant implications for the functioning of ecosystems. We examined benthic and pelagic abundances of the sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus in order to: 1) understand the main life-history bottlenecks by observing the degree of coupling between demographic stages; and 2) explore the processes driving these linkages. P. lividus is the dominant invertebrate herbivore in the Mediterranean Sea, and has been repeatedly observed to overgraze shallow beds of the seagrass Posidonia oceanica and rocky macroalgal communities. We used a hierarchical sampling design at different spatial scales (100 s, 10 s and <1 km) and habitats (seagrass and rocky macroalgae) to describe the spatial patterns in the abundance of different demographic stages (larvae, settlers, recruits and adults). Our results indicate that large-scale factors (potentially currents, nutrients, temperature, etc.) determine larval availability and settlement in the pelagic stages of urchin life history. In rocky macroalgal habitats, benthic processes (like predation) acting at large or medium scales drive adult abundances. In contrast, adult numbers in seagrass meadows are most likely influenced by factors like local migration (from adjoining rocky habitats) functioning at much smaller scales. The complexity of spatial and habitat-dependent processes shaping urchin populations demands a multiplicity of approaches when addressing habitat conservation actions, yet such actions are currently mostly aimed at managing predation processes and fish numbers. We argue that a more holistic ecosystem management also needs to incorporate the landscape and habitat-quality level processes (eutrophication, fragmentation, etc.) that together regulate the populations of this keystone herbivore.
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