Variability in kelp forest structure along a latitudinal gradient in ocean temperature
Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research / School of Sciences
Subtidal forests comprised of kelps and other canopy-forming macroalgae represent critically important marine habitats. Kelp forests exhibit high rates of primary productivity, magnified secondary productivity, support high levels of biodiversity and provide various ecosystem services. Compared with many other regions, kelp forests around the UK have been largely understudied despite their recognised importance and the possible impacts of environmental change factors. We conducted surveys at 12 kelp-dominated open-coast sites within four regions in the UK, spanning ~ 9° in latitude and ~ 3 °C in mean sea temperature. We used a combination of quadrat-scale abundance and percent cover data as well as transect-scale canopy cover estimates to quantify ecological structure at multiple spatial scales. Kelp forest structure varied significantly between sites (nested within region) and also between regions. Regional-scale differences were principally driven by a higher abundance/cover of Alaria esculenta at the colder northern regions (i.e. north and west Scotland), and the presence of the Lusitanian kelp Laminaria ochroleuca at some sites in the southernmost region (i.e. southwest England) but nowhere else. The kelp Laminaria hyperborea dominated all sites and varied significantly between sites but not regions. All assemblage-level and population-level response variables were highly variable between sites within regions, suggesting that environmental factors varying at corresponding spatial scales (e.g. wave exposure, turbidity, sedimentation) are important drivers of pattern. The detection of regional-scale variability suggests that predicted changes in ocean climate, particularly increased sea temperature, may lead to changes in kelp forest structure in the future, with poleward range contractions (for A. esculenta) and expansions (for L. ochroleuca) likely. However, as the distribution-abundance patterns of the assemblage dominant L. hyperborea did not vary predictably with ocean temperature at this spatial scale, the fundamental structure of these habitats may be more influenced by localised factors, at least in the short-term. The relative importance of multiple, concurrent environmental change factors in structuring UK kelp forests remains largely unknown.