Trophic Importance of Epiphytic Algae in Subtropical Seagrass Beds: Evidence from Multiple Stable Isotope Analyses

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Multiple stable isotope analyses were employed to examine food web dynamics in a northern Gulf of Mexico seagrass system in which epiphytic algae were the single most important primary productivity component, being responsible for 46 and 60% of total system and benthic primary production, respectively. The seagrass Halodule wrightii Ascherson contributed only 13% to total system primary production on an annual basis. Stable isotope ratios of carbon (delta C-13), nitrogen (Omega N-15), and sulfur (delta S-34) Were measured for producer and consumer samples collected from May 1989 through November 1992. Epiphytes and leaves of H, wrightii had distinct delta C-13 values (-17.5 vs -12 parts per thousand, respectively) as well as distinct delta S-34 values parts per thousand (+18 vs +11 parts per thousand, respectively). delta C-13 values for the sand microflora, occasional macroalgae, and phytoplankton were -16, -17, and -22 parts per thousand, respectively; delta N-15 values were lowest for epiphytes and H. wrightii (+6 parts per thousand) and highest for phytoplankton (+100 parts per thousand). Virtually all consumers had delta C-13 values that fell within a narrow range of -20 to -15 parts per thousand, which included all delta C-13 values of epiphytes and the sand microflora but none of those for either H, wrightii or phytoplankton. Values for delta N-15 for consumers fell within a range of +8 to +16 parts per thousand, spanning herbivorous species with diets of microalgae to carnivorous species feeding at secondary to tertiary levels in the local food webs. Consumer values for delta S-34 ranged from +4 to +20 parts per thousand (mean = 14.2 parts per thousand), and indicate a stronger influence of seawater-derived sulfate than sediment-associated sulfides. The stable isotope data, in combination with measured high biomass and primary production rates of the epiphytic algae, strongly suggest that these algae are the primary source of organic matter for higher trophic levels in seagrass beds of Mississippi Sound. The contribution of H. wrightii to the food web appears to be minimal. The overall picture that has emerged based on the present and previous stable isotope studies is one of the major trophic importance of benthic microalgae (i.e, epiphytic and sediment-associated) in seagrass beds.

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Marine Ecology Progress Series



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