J Phycol. 2020 Sep 15. doi: 10.1111/jpy.13071. Online ahead of print.
For autogenic ecosystem engineers, body size is an aspect of individual performance that has direct connections to community structure; yet the complex morphology of these species can make it difficult to draw clear connections between the environment and performance. We combined laboratory experiments and field surveys to test the hypothesis that individual body size was determined by disparate localized physiological responses to environmental conditions across the complex thallus of the intertidal kelp Hedophyllum sessile, a canopy-forming physical ecosystem engineer. We documented substantial (> 40%) declines in whole-thallus photosynthetic potential (as Maximum Quantum Yield, MQY) as a consequence of emersion, which were related to greater than 10-fold increases in intra-thallus MQY variability (as Coefficient of Variation). In laboratory experiments, desiccation and high light levels during emersion led to lasting impairment of photosynthetic potential and an immediate > 25% reduction in area due to tissue contraction which was followed by complete loss of structural integrity after three days of submersion. Tissue exposed to desiccation and high light during emersion had higher nitrogen concentrations and lower phlorotannin concentrations than tissue in control treatments (on average 1.36 and 0.1x controls, respectively), suggesting that conditions during emersion have the potential to affect food quality for consumers. Our data indicate that the complex thallus morphology of H. sessile may be critical to this kelp’s ability to persist in the intertidal zone despite the physiological challenges of emersion, and encourage a more nuanced view of the concept of “sub-lethal stress” on the scale of the whole individual.