Seagrass ecosystem multifunctionality under the rise of a flagship marine megaherbivore
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.