• Sea urchin ecology: effects of food-web modification, climate change, and community structure

      Weitzman, Benjamin P.; Esler, Daniel; Konar, Brenda H.; Hardy, Sarah M.; Johnson, Mark A.; Tinker, Martin T. (2020-08)
      Ecosystem structure and function of temperate rocky reef habitats are subject to change as a result of food-web modification, climate change, and changes in biological community interactions. Sea urchins are a global driver of change in nearshore marine habitats though their ability to heavily graze marine vegetation and force rocky reef ecosystems from kelp forest to sea urchin barren ground states. The Aleutian Archipelago in southwest Alaska provided an ideal natural laboratory to study sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus spp.) ecology following the functional loss of the keystone predator, the sea otter (Enhydra lutris) during the 1990s. The objectives of this dissertation were to 1) determine the important drivers of sea urchin demographics following the functional loss of their keystone predator; 2) determine how projected ocean warming and acidification may affect sea urchin physical condition; and 3) identify biological drivers of sea urchin recruitment in both kelp forest and barren ground habitats. To determine demographic drivers, I used a time series of benthic habitat, sea urchin demographic, and environmental data, dating back almost forty years. In the absence of sea otters, environmental conditions, specifically ocean temperatures, became more important to sea urchin demographics, but recruitment was the primary process affecting the resultant abundance and size class structure over time. To understand how predicted ocean warming and acidification could impact S. polyacanthus survival, growth, calcification, gonad development, and energy content, a 108-day laboratory experiment was conducted. This experiment determined that temperature caused a greater reduction in survival than acidification, and that projected changes in temperature and acidification will result in investment trade-offs between reproduction and maintenance or growth of somatic and calcified tissues. To determine how recruitment varied between kelp forest and sea urchin habitats, fine-scale surveys of benthic community structure found that specific taxa, and not overall community structure, correlated with sea urchin recruitment. Results from this dissertation will allow managers to make predictions about how sea urchin demography will change as a result of keystone predator loss and climate change and how that will affect nearshore community structure and function. Overall, my dissertation establishes likely pathways by which coastal habitats may change over time, in a system no longer under strong top-down control.