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Positive effects of mesograzers on epiphytes in an eelgrass system

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Traditionally, consumer–prey interactions have been considered as purely negative, but herbivores may have positive effects on plants and their productivity. Grazing may enhance prey biomass-specific productivity by directly or indirectly reducing the competition for light, nutrients, and space. We studied the effect of 4 common mesograzers, the isopod Idotea baltica, the amphipod Gammarus oceanicus, and the gastropods Littorina littorea and Rissoa membranacea on epiphytes in an eelgrass Zostera marina L. system. Eelgrass was grown in laboratory mesocosms for a set of experiments manipulating mesograzer species identity, mesograzer density and nutrient concentration. We measured epiphyte biomass-specific productivity via incorporation of radioactive carbon. Herbivore effects on epiphyte photosynthetic capacity were strongly positive for R. membranacea, moderately positive for L. littorea and I. baltica and zero for G. oceanicus under low nutrient supply. Both gastropods increased the nitrogen content of epiphytes, especially the small R. membranacea, and enhanced epiphyte growth. The crustacean species did not increase epiphyte nutrient content, but I. baltica probably enhanced epiphyte productivity by removing the overstory of algal cells, and thus reducing competition for light, nutrients, and space. The positive effect of the 2 gastropod species disappeared under higher nutrient supply, implying the importance of nutrient limitation for this interaction. The positive effect of I. baltica remained at moderate grazer densities despite the higher nutrient concentrations.

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