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Ecol Appl. 2009 Jul;19(5):1114-26.

Land-to-sea connectivity: linking human-derived terrestrial subsidies to subtidal habitat change on open rocky coasts.

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  • 1Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, DP650 418, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide, South Australia 5005, Australia.


Spatial subsidies are considered strong where differences in resource availability between donor and recipient systems are greatest. We tested whether human activities on land can increase subsidies of terrigenous nitrogen to open rocky coasts and whether these differences can predict apparent deforestation of kelp forests. We first identified landscape-scale variation in the human-mediated transfer of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) from natural, agricultural, and urban catchments to temperate coasts after episodes of rainfall. Compared to natural catchments, subsidies of DIN were on average 8-407 times greater in urban catchments, and 1-63 times greater in agricultural catchments. Urban derived nitrogen was attributed to the release of sewage effluent, as delineated by delta15N isotopic values of transplanted algae. Having made this link, we then assessed whether this catchment-scale variation may account for variation in structure of subtidal habitats, particularly as related to theory of nutrient-driven shifts of habitat from perennial (i.e., canopy-forming algae) to opportunistic species (i.e., turf-forming algae). We not only detected patterns consistent with this theory, but also established that the size and total proportion of patches of turf-forming algae were greater where the ratio of donor: recipient nitrogen loads was greater (i.e., size of subsidy). An important realization was that deforestation may be more strongly related to variation in the size of subsidy rather than size of human populations, particularly among urban catchments. These data directly link the type of human activity within catchments to the modification of land-to-sea subsidies and indirectly support theory that predicts terrestrial inputs to have greater ecological effects where the disparity in resource availability between donor and recipient is exacerbated. Our evidence has been used by coastal managers to reconsider their management of coastal systems and has subsequently contributed to new water-recycling policy and initiatives.

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