The trophic interactions of sea urchins are known to be the agents of phase shifts in benthic marine habitats such as tropical and temperate reefs. In temperate reefs, the grazing activity of sea urchins has been responsible for the destruction of kelp forests and the formation of `urchin barrens', a rocky habitat dominated by crustose algae and encrusting invertebrates. Once formed, these urchin barrens can persist for decades. Trophic plasticity in the sea urchin may contribute to the stability and resilience of this alternate stable state by increasing diet breadth in sea urchins. This plasticity promotes ecological connectivity and weakens species interactions and so increases ecosystem stability. We test the hypothesis that sea urchins exhibit trophic plasticity using an approach that controls for other typically confounding environmental and genetic factors. To do this, we exposed a genetically homogenous population of sea urchins to two very different trophic environments over a period of two years. The sea urchins exhibited a wide degree of phenotypic trophic plasticity when exposed to contrasting trophic environments. The two populations developed differences in their gross morphology and the test microstructure. In addition, when challenged with unfamiliar prey, the response of each group was different. We show that sea urchins exhibit significant morphological and behavioural phenotypic plasticity independent of their environment or their nutritional status.
|Publication status||Published - 1 Aug 2012|