Differences in kelp morphology between wave sheltered and exposed localities: Morphologically plastic or fixed traits?

Document Type

Journal Article


Springer Verlag


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science


School of Natural Sciences




Fowler-Walker, M. J., Wernberg, T., & Connell, S. D. (2006). Differences in kelp morphology between wave sheltered and exposed localities: morphologically plastic or fixed traits?. Marine Biology, 148(4), 755-767. Available here


The ability of algae to change the shape of their thallus in response to the environment may be of functional and ecological importance to the alga, with many species of macroalgae exhibiting a great range of morphological variation across wave exposure gradients. However, differences in morphology detected between sheltered and exposed environments cannot determine whether such differences represent plastic responses to the local environment or whether morphology is genetically fixed. This study tested for differences in the morphology of the common kelp, Ecklonia radiata, between wave sheltered and exposed environments, and reciprocally transplanted juveniles to distinguish the nature of such differences (i.e. plastic vs fixed traits). Differences between exposure environments were consistent with known effects of exposure (i.e. a wide, thin thallus at sheltered sites and a narrow, thick thallus with a thick stipe at exposed sites). The reciprocal transplant experiment confirmed that morphological plasticity was the mechanism enabling this alga to display different patterns in morphology between exposure environments. Individuals transplanted to the exposed environment underwent a rapid and extreme response in morphology, which was not apparent in individuals transplanted to the sheltered environment that responded more slowly. These results suggest that stressors typical of sheltered environments (i.e. diffusion stress) may not be as influential (if at all) compared to stressors typical of exposed environments (i.e. breakage, dislodgement) in differentiating morphological characters between exposure environments.





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