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Aquatic Biology

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AB 6:99-108 (2009)  -  DOI:

Degradation of sea urchin feces in a rocky subtidal ecosystem: implications for nutrient cycling and energy flow

Leah K. Sauchyn*, Robert E. Scheibling

Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4J1, Canada

ABSTRACT: During destructive grazing events in the Northwest Atlantic, sea urchins Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis consume large amounts of kelp biomass, transforming this material into feces. To determine the role of urchin fecal material in nutrient cycling and energy flow in the shallow rocky subtidal zone, we monitored the physical, chemical, and microbial degradation of urchin feces at 6, 9, 12, and 16 m depth over 19 d at a wave-exposed site on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia by quantifying changes in fecal biochemical composition, pellet size, and settling velocity. We observed an exponential loss of fecal material and rapid degradation of total and labile organic matter fractions; this suggests that urchin fecal production plays an important role in local nutrient cycling and energy flow via the microbial food web. As the feces were further degraded there was a relative increase in organic carbon, nitrogen, lipid, and available energy content, and a decrease in the C:N ratio, suggesting that degraded urchin feces are an important food source for suspension- and deposit-feeding invertebrates. The settling velocity of the feces also decreased over time, likely due to a decrease in fecal pellet density. Older, less dense feces with a relatively high energy content are more likely to be suspended and transported horizontally, providing a mechanism for the export of kelp primary production to deeper, less productive waters.

KEY WORDS: Feces · Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis · Degradation · Biochemical composition · Settling velocity · Microbial decomposition · Saccharina longicruris

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Cite this article as: Sauchyn LK, Scheibling RE (2009) Degradation of sea urchin feces in a rocky subtidal ecosystem: implications for nutrient cycling and energy flow. Aquat Biol 6:99-108.

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