Battle for the mounds: Niche competition between upside-down jellyfish and invasive seagrass

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).  

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