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Ecology. 2006 Mar;87(3):717-30.

Local extinction of a foundation species in a hypoxic estuary: integrating individuals to ecosystem.

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Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA.


We integrated across individual, population, community, and ecosystem levels to understand the impact of environmental stress by tracking the foundation species Mytilus edulis in the hypoxic estuary Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, USA. Our initial surveys revealed that the mussels occurred in nine extensive (2-28 ha) dense (814-9943 individuals/m2) subtidal reefs that attracted a diverse suite of predators (sea stars, crabs, gastropods). Hypoxia occurred in the summer of 2001, and a mussel transplant experiment revealed overall reduced growth rates of individuals, and higher mortality rates among larger mussels. At the population level, large decreases in densities and cover of mussels were correlated with dissolved oxygen concentrations, leading to extinction at one site and reductions of over an order of magnitude at others. Within one year, seven of the eight remaining populations were edged to extinction, and the previously extinct population was recolonized. At the community level, a predator exclusion experiment indicated that predation was an unimportant source of mussel mortality during the hypoxic period, in part due to the emigration of sea stars, as predicted by the Consumer Stress Model. However, mussels were too intolerant to hypoxia to have a net benefit from the predation refuge. The seasonal (summer) occurrence of hypoxia allowed sea stars to return following a lag, as predicted by a stress return time model, and the resumption of predation contributed to the subsequent extinction of mussel populations. At the ecosystem level, the initial filtration rate of the mussel reefs was estimated at 134.6 x 10(6) m3/d, equivalent to filtering the volume of the bay 1.3 times during the 26-d average residence time. That function was reduced by >75% following hypoxia. The effect of hypoxia on each level of organization had consequences at others. For example, size-specific mortality and decreased growth of individuals, and reduced filtration capacity of reefs, indicated a loss of the ability of mussels to entrain planktonic productivity and potential to control future eutrophication and hypoxia. Our study quantified patterns of loss and identified pathways within an integrative framework of feedbacks, summarized in a conceptual model that is applicable to similar foundation species subjected to environmental stress.

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