Positive feedbacks cause a nonlinear response of ecosystems to environmental change and may even cause bistability. Even though the importance of feedback mechanisms has been demonstrated for many types of ecosystems, their identification and quantification is still difficult. Here, we investigated whether positive feedbacks between seagrasses and light conditions are likely in seagrass ecosystems dominated by the temperate seagrass Zostera marina. We applied a combination of multiple linear regression and structural equation modeling (SEM) on a dataset containing 83 sites scattered across Western Europe. Results confirmed that a positive feedback between sediment conditions, light conditions and seagrass density is likely to exist in seagrass ecosystems. This feedback indicated that seagrasses are able to trap and stabilize suspended sediments, which in turn improves water clarity and seagrass growth conditions. Furthermore, our analyses demonstrated that effects of eutrophication on light conditions, as indicated by surface water total nitrogen, were on average at least as important as sediment conditions. This suggests that in general, eutrophication might be the most important factor controlling seagrasses in sheltered estuaries, while the seagrass-sediment-light feedback is a dominant mechanism in more exposed areas. Our study demonstrates the potentials of SEM to identify and quantify positive feedbacks mechanisms for ecosystems and other complex systems.
- EELGRASS ZOSTERA-MARINA