Snail grazing facilitates growth of a bloom-forming alga

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Herbivory often has a negative effect on plants. However, there is a growing number of examples, primarily in terrestrial ecosystems, where herbivory causes an increase in plant size, growth rate, and/or reproductive output. In marine ecosystems, the positive effects of herbivores on macroalgae are not as well studied, although limited evidence exists for herbivore-induced increases in macroalgal growth rates via 2 mechanisms: nutrient addition via grazer defecation, and epiphyte removal. In this study, we examined the effects of grazing by the mud snail Ilyanassa obsoleta on Ulva lactuca, the dominant bloom-forming macroalga in many New England estuaries. We found that the presence of I. obsoleta had a significant positive, rather than negative, effect on U. lactuca. Through caging experiments, we established that this positive effect was not due to fecal nutrient inputs from the snail. Similarly, snail contact in the absence of grazing did not affect U. lactuca growth rates. In contrast, grazing by I. obsoleta significantly reduced the microalgal cover on heavily fouled U. lactuca blades, indicating that snail herbivory of microalgal films likely facilitates U. lactuca growth. Our study demonstrates the surprising, positive effect that an abundant herbivore can have on the growth of a macroalgal bloom species. © Inter-Research 2010.

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Marine Ecology Progress Series