Consistent effects of consumer species loss across different habitats
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Authors: Mrowicki, R.J., Maggs, C.A. and O'Connor, N.E.
© 2015 Nordic Society Oikos. Our knowledge of the effects of consumer species loss on ecosystem functioning is limited by a paucity of manipulative field studies, particularly those that incorporate inter-trophic effects. Further, given the ongoing transformation of natural habitats by anthropogenic activities, studies should assess the relative importance of biodiversity for ecosystem processes across different environmental contexts by including multiple habitat types. We tested the context-dependency of the effects of consumer species loss by conducting a 15-month field experiment in two habitats (mussel beds and rock pools) on a temperate rocky shore, focussing on the responses of algal assemblages following the single and combined removals of key gastropod grazers (Patella vulgata, P. ulyssiponensis, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis). In both habitats, the removal of limpets resulted in a larger increase in macroalgal richness than that of either L. littorea or G. umbilicalis. Further, by the end of the study, macroalgal cover and richness were greater following the removal of multiple grazer species compared to single species removals. Despite substantial differences in physical properties and the structure of benthic assemblages between mussel beds and rock pools, the effects of grazer loss on macroalgal cover, richness, evenness and assemblage structure were remarkably consistent across both habitats. There was, however, a transient habitat-dependent effect of grazer removal on macroalgal assemblage structure that emerged after three months, which was replaced by non-interactive effects of grazer removal and habitat after 15 months. This study shows that the effects of the loss of key consumers may transcend large abiotic and biotic differences between habitats in rocky intertidal systems. While it is clear that consumer diversity is a primary driver of ecosystem functioning, determining its relative importance across multiple contexts is necessary to understand the consequences of consumer species loss against a background of environmental change. Synthesis The roles of species may vary with environmental context, making it difficult to predict how biodiversity loss affects ecosystem functioning across multiple habitats. We tested how natural algal assemblages in two distinct intertidal habitats responded to the removal of different combinations of key consumer species. Despite an initial habitat-dependent effect of consumer loss, habitat type did not modify the longer-term responses of algal assemblages to either the identity or number of consumer species removed. Our findings show that, in certain systems, consumer diversity remains a primary driver of ecosystem functioning across widely different environmental contexts. Oikos