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Are Floating Algal Mats A Refuge From Hypoxia For Estuarine Invertebrates?

Michael R.S. Coffin, Kyle M. Knysh, Emma F. Theriault, Christina C. Pater, Simon C. Courtenay, Michael R. van den Heuvel

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Eutrophic aquatic habitats are characterized by the proliferation of vegetation leading to a large standing biomass that upon decomposition may create hypoxic (low-oxygen) conditions. This is indeed the case in nutrient impacted estuaries of Prince Edward Island, Canada, where macroalgae, from the genusUlva,form submerged ephemeral mats. Hydrological forces and gases released from photosynthesis and decomposition lead to these mats occasionally floating to the water’s surface, henceforth termed floating mats. Here, we explore the hypothesis that floating mats are refugia during periods of sustained hypoxia/anoxia and examine how the invertebrate community responds to it. Floating mats were not always present, so in the first year (2013) sampling was attempted monthly and limited to when both floating and submerged mats occurred. In the subsequent year sampling was weekly, but at only one estuary due to logistical constraints from increased sampling frequency, and was not limited to when both mat types occurred. Water temperature, salinity, and pH were monitored bi-weekly with dissolved oxygen concentration measured hourly. The floating and submerged assemblages shared many of the same taxa but were statistically distinct communities; submerged mats tended to have a greater proportion of benthic animals and floating mats had more mobile invertebrates and insects. In 2014, sampling happened to occur in the weeks before the onset of anoxia, during 113 consecutive hours of sustained anoxia, and for four weeks after normoxic conditions returned. The invertebrate community on floating mats appeared to be unaffected by anoxia, indicating that these mats may be refugia during times of oxygen stress. Conversely, there was a dramatic decrease in animal abundances that remained depressed on submerged mats for two weeks. Cluster analysis revealed that the submerged mat communities from before the onset of anoxia and four weeks after anoxia were highly similar to each other, indicating recovery. When mobile animals were considered alone, there was an exponential relationship between the percentage of animals on floating mats, relative to the total number on both mat types, and hypoxia. The occupation of floating mats by invertebrates at all times, and their dominance there during hypoxia/anoxia, provides support for the hypothesis that floating mats are refugia.