In tropical ecosystems, autotroph organisms are continuously competing for space, with some plant species benefiting from disturbances such as fire, grazing, or bioturbation that clear habitat (Pulsford et al. 2016). These disturbances can open up layers of vegetation, thereby promoting colonization of opportunistic species that would have been competitively inferior without disturbance (Castorani et al. 2018). Opportunistic fast-growing species also include often invasive species that are therefore also likely to increase in dominance after disturbance (Altman and Whitlatch 2007). In seagrass meadows in the southern Caribbean, we observed that the marine invasive plant Halophila stipulacea uses bioturbation mounds, created by burrowing infauna such as sea cucumbers and shrimp (see Suchanek 1983), to colonize new habitats (Figure 1a, b). On Bonaire and Curaçao, in habitats with ~100% native Thalassia testudinum cover, invasive H. stipulacea often at first only occurred on bioturbation mounds that smothered native T. testudinum seagrass, likely due to fragmentation and subsequent settlement (Smulders et al. 2017). These observations suggest that bioturbation mounds serve as starting points for further invasion (Fig. 1c).
Jan Arie Vonk
Large grazers (megaherbivores) have a profound impact on ecosystem functioning. However, how ecosystem multifunctionality is affected by changes in megaherbivore populations remains poorly understood. Understanding the total impact on ecosystem multifunctionality requires an integrative ecosystem approach, which is especially challenging to obtain in marine systems. We assessed the effects of experimentally simulated grazing intensity scenarios on ecosystem functions and multifunctionality in a tropical Caribbean seagrass ecosystem. As a model, we selected a key marine megaherbivore, the green turtle, whose ecological role is rapidly unfolding in numerous foraging areas where populations are recovering through conservation after centuries of decline, with an increase in recorded overgrazing episodes. To quantify the effects, we employed a novel integrated index of seagrass ecosystem multifunctionality based upon multiple, well-recognized measures of seagrass ecosystem functions that reflect ecosystem services. Experiments revealed that intermediate turtle grazing resulted in the highest rates of nutrient cycling and carbon storage, while sediment stabilization, decomposition rates, epifauna richness, and fish biomass are highest in the absence of turtle grazing. In contrast, intense grazing resulted in disproportionally large effects on ecosystem functions and a collapse of multifunctionality. These results imply that (i) the return of a megaherbivore can exert strong effects on coastal ecosystem functions and multifunctionality, (ii) conservation efforts that are skewed toward megaherbivores, but ignore their key drivers like predators or habitat, will likely result in overgrazing-induced loss of multifunctionality, and (iii) the multifunctionality index shows great potential as a quantitative tool to assess ecosystem performance. Considerable and rapid alterations in megaherbivore abundance (both through extinction and conservation) cause an imbalance in ecosystem functioning and substantially alter or even compromise ecosystem services that help to negate global change effects. An integrative ecosystem approach in environmental management is urgently required to protect and enhance ecosystem multifunctionality.