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Divergent succession and implications for alternative states on rocky intertidal shores

It has been hypothesized that rockweed stands and mussel beds in sheltered bays in the Gulf of Maine, USA, are alternative community states. As a test of this hypothesis, experimental clearings of different sizes were established in stands of the rockweed Ascophyllum nodosum (L.) Le Jolis to determine if successional changes in large clearings developed species assemblages distinctly different from the surrounding A. nodosum stands. Clearings ranging from 1 to 8 m in diameter were created at 12 sites in 4 bays on Swan’s Island, Maine, in 1996 to mimic the effects of ice scour, and abundances of gastropods, barnacles, mussels and fucoid algae were monitored until 2002. ANOVAs and MDS showed strong effects of clearing size and divergent successional changes in large clearings. Large clearings were quickly filled in and remained dominated by the alga Fucus vesiculosus L. and the barnacle Semibalanus balanoides (L). There was no evidence for site-specific effects, and Mantel tests showed clearing size was a better predictor of species composition than geographic distances among sites. Results suggest that large pulse disturbances using clearings of 8 m in diameter can initiate divergent successional pathways and have a protracted effect on species composition. Results are also consistent with the hypothesis that mussel beds and rockweed stands in sheltered bays may be alternative community states.

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