Graduation Year

2012

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Biology (Integrative Biology)

Major Professor

Susan S. Bell

Keywords

Bryopsidales, regeneration, rhizoid, seagrass, secondary metabolite, vegetative reproduction

Abstract

Rhizophytic algae are large, abundant primary producers throughout tropical and subtropical areas worldwide where they grow as an understory in seagrass beds, as well as form mixed or monospecific beds of exclusively rhizophytic algal species. In this dissertation, "rhizophytic algae" refers to coenocytic green algae (Chlorophyta) in the order Bryopsidales that use a net of rhizoids to anchor in unconsolidated sediments. In the development of seagrass beds, rhizophytic algae colonize bare patches and are thought to facilitate seagrass colonization by stabilizing sediments and providing organic matter. However, despite their prominence little is known about many aspects of the ecology of rhizophytic algae.

Detailed information on the abundance and biomass of rhizophytic algae at the species level is scarce and the belowground components are seldom quantified. Moreover, rhizophytic algal communities located along the central west coast of Florida have received very little study. At three shallow coastal sites in the Lower Florida Keys and one on the central west coast of Florida, I measured the abundance, biomass, organic content, and morphometric features of the above- and belowground portions of all rhizophytic algal species present along transects in seagrass-algal bed habitat. Relatively diverse assemblages of these algae were present both in areas with and without a seagrass canopy, though dense (greater than or equal to 50%) seagrass cover correlated with decreased algal richness. Rhizophytic algal densities at Keys sites ranged from 68 - 143 thalli m-2 with total dry weights of 76.4 - 226.7 g m-2 with only calcified species present. The west coast of Florida site had the highest aboveground organic biomass (180 g m-2), the highest abundance of rhizophytic algae (365 thalli m-2), and abundant uncalcifed algae of the genus Caulerpa. Morphometric characteristics varied within a species among sites and may reflect differences in abiotic variables such as sediment grain size. The anchoring structures of these algae, made up of fine rhizoids and attached sediment, occupied up to 5.3% of the total volume of the top 5 cm of substrate. My results indicate that across rhizophytic algal species, even within a genus, the production of belowground structure and potential influence on ecosystem function is highly variable and not necessarily related to the aboveground biomass. These results provide new information on belowground structure provided by rhizophytic algal species and characterize the rhizophytic algal community on the central west coast of Florida.

The role of rhizophytic algae in seagrass bed succession has been recognized, but little is known about the rate and species composition of colonization of recently created bare patches. In a series of field experiments at three sites on the central west coast of Florida, recruitment by rhizophytic algae into created cleared areas was rapid and dominated by two species of Penicillus and Udotea flabellum. In three weeks, rhizophytic algae were able to recruit, grow to their full height, and bind sufficient sediment to create full-sized holdfasts. Additional field experiments described here show thalli of all of the rhizophytic algal species tested (three species in three genera) were able to regenerate from holdfasts (with small stubs of stipe attached) in a matter of weeks. Overall, my results suggest that belowground structures play a key role in recolonization by, and recovery of, rhizophytic algae after disturbance and are likely important to the long-term persistence of these algal populations.

Bryopsidalean algae often have high concentrations of defensive compounds inside their thalli and these terpenoid secondary metabolites possess anti-fouling capability in laboratory tests. Because fouling is ubiquitous in marine environments and epibonts have harmful effects on their hosts, researchers have proposed that rhizophytic algae use these compounds to prevent fouling. For this to be an effective strategy, the compounds must be presented to potential colonizers on the external aboveground surfaces. Thus, I examined the chemistry of rhizophytic algal surfaces using extractions that avoid mechanical damage. Secondary metabolites were not detected in the surface extracts of four species while these compounds were detected in the whole plant extracts. My results, coupled with previous studies on the degradation of these metabolites in seawater and the presence of fouled plants in the field, and suggest non-polar secondary metabolites are not deployed onto the surfaces of rhizophytic algae as a defense against fouling.

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