Local- and regional-scale effects of wave exposure, thermal stress, and absolute versus effective shore level on patterns of intertidal zonation

Harley, Christopher D. G., Brian S. T. Helmuth

Limnol. Oceanogr., 48(4), 2003, 1498-1508 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2003.48.4.1498

ABSTRACT: Rocky intertidal ecosystems are characterized by marked zonation patterns in which species replace one another along the vertical gradient of emersion time. Yet, we still do not fully understand the reasons that zonation patterns are variable in space and time. Here, we use effective shore level (ESL), a metric that incorporates the modifying influence of wave splash, to describe the relationship between uninterrupted emersion time and the zonation patterns of two ecologically important species: the mussel Mytilus californianus and the barnacle Balanus glandula. At the local scale (10s to 100s of meters) on Tatoosh Island, the upper limits of both species are closely related to ESL, regardless of substrate aspect or maximum temperature. At larger spatial scales (10s to 100s of kilometers), the upper limit of Balanus is related to ESL at cool sites but not at hotter sites. Thus, although ESL explains most of the local-scale variation in zonation at a cool site, other factors (temperature, desiccation) likely become important as spatial scale increases to incorporate warmer sites. Our results emphasize that an understanding of where and when specific ecological factors are limiting is crucial for our ability to explain and predict large-scale biological patterns in space and time.

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