Understanding the depth limit of the seagrass Cymodocea nodosa as a critical transition: Field and modeling evidence

Mayol, Elvira; Boada, Jordi; Pérez, Marta M.; Sanmartí, Neus; Minguito-Frutos, M.; Arthur, Rohan; Alcoverro, Teresa; Alonso, David; Romero, Javier. Marine Environmental Research 182 : 105765 /2022)   DIGITAL CSIC  

Changes in light and sediment conditions can sometimes trigger abrupt regime shifts in seagrass meadows resulting in dramatic and unexpected die-offs of seagrass. Light attenuates rapidly with depth, and in seagrass systems with non-linear behaviours, can serve as a sharp boundary beyond which the meadow transitions to bare sand. Determining system behaviour is therefore essential to ensuring resilience is maintained and to prevent stubborn critical ecosystem transitions caused by declines in water quality. Here we combined field and modelling studies to explore the transition from meadow to bare sand in the seagrass Cymodocea nodosa at the limit of its depth distribution in a shallow, light-limited bay. We first describe the relationship between light availability and seagrass density along a depth gradient in an extensive unfragmented meadow (Alfacs bay, NE Spain). We then develop a simple mechanistic model to characterise system behaviour. In the field, we identified sharp decline in shoot density beyond a threshold of ~1.9 m depth, shifting from a vegetated state to bare sand. The dynamic population model we developed assumes light-dependent growth and an inverse density-dependent mortality due to facilitation between shoots (mortality rate decreases as shoot density increases). The model closely tracked our empirical observations, and both the model and the field data showed signs of bistability. This strongly suggests that the depth limit of C. nodosa is a critical transition driven by photosynthetic light requirements. While the mechanisms still need to be confirmed with experimental evidence, recognizing the nonlinear behaviour of C. nodosa meadows is vital not only in improving our understanding of light effects on seagrass dynamics, but also in managing shallow-water meadows. Given the shallow threshold (<2m), lightlimited systems may experience significant and recalcitrant meadow retractions with even small changes in sediment and light conditions. Understanding the processes underlying meadow resilience can inform the maintenance and restoration of meadows worldwide.