Morphological variation of a rapidly spreading native macroalga across a range of spatial scales and its tolerance to sedimentation

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Journal Article
Marine Environmental Research, 2019, 147 pp. 149 - 158
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© 2019 Understanding how species' traits can shape winners and losers of environmental change can help resolve drivers of current community composition patterns and predict future drivers. Sedimentation is one of the main environmental stressors shaping coastal marine communities and tolerance of high sedimentation rates (e.g. via morphological variation) may allow for competitive dominance. In New South Wales, Australia, the abundance and range of the native green macroalga Caulerpa filiformis have increased over recent decades, apparently associated with sediment disturbance. We used field measurements to test hypotheses about morphological variability in C. filiformis in relation to local- and large-scale environmental variation in water depth, sediment cover and latitude. Using a lab experiment, we tested hypotheses about survival and morphological change under different sedimentation regimes. In the field, C. filiformis fronds were more elongated and less branched when a sediment veneer is present and when water depth increased (i.e. reduced light). At larger spatial scales, frond length and width decreased with increased latitude, but latitude was less important in explaining the variation C. filiformis’ length than were depth or sedimentation. Our lab experiment showed a high tolerance to sedimentation, aided by increased investment in vertical growth. This study shows that rapid morphological plasticity is a likely key attribute of the spreading native macroalga C. filiformis. We argue that having a broad environmental tolerance is key to define a species success under environmental change.
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