An enduring concept in ecology is that space is the resource most in demand for communities living on hard substrates such as rocky shores and pier pilings. We have seen before how these communities can be extremely dense and diverse with little or no unoccupied space. But is space the whole story? These communities also need food and oxygen. How do such dense assemblages of animals manage to extract enough food to allow them to co-exist?
Belinda Comerford, Mariana Álvarez-Noriega, and Dustin Marshall have found different species of filter-feeders tend to consume one species of phytoplankton much more than others when offered a selection. They noticed studies looking at the role food plays in structuring filter-feeding communities tend to consider phytoplankton as a uniform resource. This makes no allowance for differences in size, shape or chemical make-up of the different algal species.
Belinda, Mariana and Dustin suspected that different species of filter-feeders will consume different components of the phytoplankton, reducing competition for food and allowing for the dense and diverse communities that we see in nature. So, they set about testing how different species of filter feeder consumed a mix of three different phytoplankton species that varied in size and shape and chemical make-up.
They used 11 different species of invertebrate filter-feeding animals and offered them a mix of the three phytoplankton species. They measured the concentrations of each phytoplankton species in the animal chambers one minute and one hour after adding equal volumes of each species to the chambers. They also had control chambers that contained no animals which enabled them to estimate how much of the algae settled out to the bottom during the experimental period.
While most of the animals ingested all three phytoplankton species they did so at different rates. The encrusting bryozoan Watersipora subtorquata consumed the largest algal species at a much greater rate than it did the other two species while the sponge Sycon spp. favoured the smallest algal species. Some species such as the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis appear to be generalists, consuming all three algal species at the same rate.
It seems that Belinda, Mariana and Dustin might be right. Thinking of phytoplankton as a homogenous resource underestimates the potential for reducing competition between filter-feeding species. If, instead of competing for a ‘common pool’ of phytoplankton, filter feeders target specific subsections then the diverse and densely packed communities that we see are more readily explained.