MEPS 213:97-110 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps213097

Variation in egg spawning among subpopulations of sea urchins Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis: a theoretical approach

Susanne K. Meidel1,*, Robert E. Scheibling2

1Darling Marine Center, University of Maine, 193 Clarks Cove Road, Walpole, Maine 04573, USA
2Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada

ABSTRACT: Variation in zygote production, by determining the initial size of the larval pool, can affect the population dynamics of marine invertebrates with a planktonic larval stage. In this paper, we model temporal and spatial patterns in egg spawning of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis in the shallow subtidal zone along the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia. In this region, population outbreaks of sea urchins have caused major transitions from kelp beds to barrens (areas devoid of fleshy macroalgae). We define 3 community states and associated subpopulations of sea urchins: (1) the established kelp bed state, where sea urchins are in low density and small; (2) the transition state, with sea urchins in kelp beds, newly created (transitional) barrens, and grazing fronts (dense aggregations of large sea urchins along the edges of kelp beds); and (3) the barrens state after fronts have dispersed and intermediate densities of moderately sized sea urchins remain in post-transitional barrens. Using data from the literature and unpublished sources, we parameterize mathematical models to predict egg spawning for each subpopulation, both on an areal basis and for the entire coast. The predicted number of eggs spawned per m2 is 1 order of magnitude higher in grazing fronts (7.1 x 107) than in transitional and post-transitional barrens (5.8 x 106 and 4.4 x 106, respectively), and 4 to 6 times higher in barrens than in established kelp beds (1.0 x 106). Differences among subpopulations in the number of eggs spawned are directly related to differences in adult density, female gonad output, and body size. The total number of eggs spawned (all subpopulations combined) on a coastal scale increases ~6-fold from the established kelp bed state (5.6 x 1014) to the late transition state (3.1 × 1015) and then drops slightly in the barrens state (2.4 x 1015). During most of the transition state, sea urchins in barrens spawn the greatest number of eggs. Based on published values, we estimate that fertilization rates are highest in grazing fronts (62%), intermediate in transitional and post-transitional barrens (36 and 43%, respectively) and lowest in kelp beds (15%), resulting in up to 2 orders of magnitude differences in the number of zygotes produced in these subpopulations (4.4 x 107, 2.1 x 106, 1.9 x 106, and 1.5 x 105). Total zygote production (all subpopulations combined) on a coastal scale increases ~16-fold from the established kelp bed state (8.1 x 1013) to the late transition state (1.3 × 1015) and then drops slightly in the barrens state (1.1 x 1015). During most of the transition state, sea urchins in barrens contribute the greatest number of zygotes to the total zygote pool, with those in grazing fronts contributing up to 44% of all zygotes. Sensitivity analysis and evaluation of model assumptions indicate that our predictions should be correct in a relative sense (i.e. comparing among subpopulations), although absolute numbers may be overestimated. A disparity between temporal patterns of estimated zygote production and observed settlement rates of S. droebachiensis in the shallow subtidal zone suggests that zygote production interacts with other factors to determine settlement rates of this species.


KEY WORDS: Sea urchins · Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis · Egg spawning · Fertilization rate · Zygote production · Kelp beds · Barrens · Grazing fronts


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