Seagrass productivity : from plant to system
Abstract: Seagrasses form one of the most productive habitats on earth and are recognized as very efficient carbon sinks. The levels and patterns of productivity within and across different seagrass systems vary widely due to natural or human-induced factors. Seagrass plants, being the foundation species of seagrass meadows, have a substitutional role as primary producers to the overall productivity of their habitat. Clarifying the variation in the carbon capture potential of these plants on physiological and ecological levels is essential to understand of the whole system’s carbon balance. In this thesis, the photosynthetic performance and productivity of seagrass plants were studied in relation to factors that have large impact on productivity, such as tissues age, season and water depth. Furthermore, the seagrass response, in terms of capacity to capture and sequester carbon, to human-induced stress factors such as shading and simulated grazing was evaluated in a tropical seagrass meadow. The research has included a multitude of seagrass productivity assessments from plant- to system level.The results showed that age has a significant effect on the photosynthetic performance of the temperate seagrass Zostera marina L., both within a single shoot and between shoots. When comparing leaves among the same shoot, the photosynthetic capacity and efficiency were highest in mature tissues and significantly reduced in very young tissues as well as in tissues undergoing senescence. In response to high light stress, very young tissues seemed to cope better with dissipating excess light energy, which was demonstrated by the higher values of non-photochemical quenching (NPQ) observed compared to mature and senescent tissues. Such an effect was also observed when comparing the oldest and youngest shoots from the same genet; the youngest shoot showed higher ability to dissipate excess light energy compared to the oldest one, and might thus be able to better withstand light stress.On a larger spatiotemporal scale, the areal productivity of seagrass plants was significantly affected by light availability and temperature, leading to a strong seasonal variation. In addition, depth had a strong site-specific effect on plant productivity in terms of biomass. On a yearly basis, productivity rates varied substantially, reaching up to 20 g C m-2 24h-1 in the summer months. This high carbon capture potential was, however, outbalanced by the high respiration rates of the benthic community. Overall, the whole system had a low but positive yearly carbon balance.Both shading and simulated grazing negatively affected seagrass plants and the whole habitat after five months of experimental disturbance. On the plant level, photosynthesis, productivity and growth were all reduced. On the system level, a reduction in community productivity was recorded. The long-term refractory carbon was, however, not affected although erosion was observed in treatments subjected to simulated grazing.In summary, this thesis has established that age, season, depth and exposure are factors highly responsible for natural variation in seagrass plant- and habitat productivity, and that seagrasses respond to human-induced stress by significantly reducing their productivity. Even though seagrass plants are generally capable of surviving stress periods, these results suggest that prolonged deteriorating stress conditions will lead to serious harm on the plants as well as the entire habitat, and thereby compromising the carbon burial capacity of the seagrass system.
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