Athens, Ga. Fish play a far more important role as contributors of nutrients to marine ecosystems than previously thought, according to researchers at the University of Georgia and Florida International University. In a pair of papers in the journal Ecology, they show that fish contribute more nutrients to their local ecosystems than any other sourceenough to cause changes in the growth rates of the organisms at the base of the food web.
Jacob Allgeier, a doctoral student in the UGA Odum School of Ecology, and Craig Layman, associate professor at Florida International University, led the study, which took place in the waters of a large bay on Abaco Island, Bahamas.
Most tropical coastal ecosystems are nutrient limited, meaning that the system's primary food sources such as algae and seagrass need to have enough nitrogen and phosphorusin the right proportionsto grow and thrive.
"We've been thinking about the role of fish and the nutrients they're excreting in these ecosystems for a while now," Allgeier said. In marine food webs, fish are usually thought of as predators, he explained, consuming microorganisms, plants and smaller animals. But fish have another important, although often overlooked, role in the system. Through excretion, they recycle the nutrients they take in, providing the fertilizer sea grass and algae need to grow.
To determine the impact of nutrients from fish, the team needed to compare sites with fish populations of different sizes. Knowing that fish tend to congregate around reefsthe larger the reef, the more fish it attractsthey built a series of artificial reefs of two sizes, large and small, and selected a number of control sites with no reefs at all.
Over the course of two years they surveyed each site periodically to record the number, size and species of fish present. Allgeier created models to estimate the supply of nutrients from all species of fish at the various sites.
|Contact: Jacob Allgeier|
University of Georgia