Drought, mutualism breakdown, and landscape-scale degradation of seagrass beds

Jimmy de Fouw, Laura L. Govers, Johan van de Koppel, Jim van Belzen, Wouter Dorigo, Mohammed A. Sidi Cheikh, Marjolijn J. A. Christianen, Karin J. van der Reijden, Matthijs van der Geest, Theunis Piersma, Alfons J. P. Smolders, Han Olff, Leon P. M. Lamers, Jan A. van Gils, Tjisse van der Heide

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In many marine ecosystems, biodiversity critically depends on foundation species such as corals and seagrasses that engage in mutualistic interactions [1-3]. Concerns grow that environmental disruption of marine mutualisms exacerbates ecosystem degradation, with breakdown of the obligate coral mutualism ("coral bleaching") being an iconic example [2, 4, 5]. However, as these mutualisms are mostly facultative rather than obligate, it remains unclear whether mutualism breakdown is a common risk in marine ecosystems, and thus a potential accelerator of ecosystem degradation. Here, we provide evidence that drought triggered landscape-scale seagrass degradation and show the consequent failure of a facultative mutualistic feedback between seagrass and sulfide-consuming lucinid bivalves that in turn appeared to exacerbate the observed collapse. Local climate and remote sensing analyses revealed seagrass collapse after a summer with intense low-tide drought stress. Potential analysis-a novel approach to detect feedback-mediated state shifts-revealed two attractors (healthy and degraded states) during the collapse, suggesting that the drought disrupted internal feedbacks to cause abrupt, patch-wise degradation. Field measurements comparing degraded patches that were healthy before the collapse with patches that remained healthy demonstrated that bivalves declined dramatically in degrading patches with associated high sediment sulfide concentrations, confirming the breakdown of the mutualistic seagrass-lucinid feedback. Our findings indicate that drought triggered mutualism breakdown, resulting in toxic sulfide concentrations that aggravated seagrass degradation. We conclude that external disturbances can cause sudden breakdown of facultative marine mutualistic feedbacks. As this may amplify ecosystem degradation, we suggest including mutualisms in marine conservation and restoration approaches.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1051-1056
Number of pages7
JournalCurrent Biology
Publication statusPublished - 25-Apr-2016

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