10 July 2019 - Sea urchins have gotten a bad rap on the Pacific coast. The spiky sea creatures can mow down entire swaths of kelp forest, leaving behind rocky urchin barrens. An article in the New York Times went so far as to call them "cockroaches of the ocean." But new research suggests that urchins play a more complex role in their ecosystems than previously believed.
A team led by Christie Yorke, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute, studied how urchins might function to break up tough kelp into more manageable pieces that can feed other scavengers, also known as detritivores, living on the kelp forest floor. The paper, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is the first to look at sea urchins' role as shredders in the kelp forest ecosystem.
Urchins can have an outsized effect on kelp forests, especially when their predators aren't around to keep their population in check, Yorke explained. Overhunting of the sea otter, one of urchins' most significant predators, has allowed some urchin populations to clear cut vast tracts of kelp forest, drastically reducing the productivity and biodiversity of sites they've munched through. Some groups have even taken to indiscriminately smashing urchins to stem this scourge.
Nevertheless, urchins may be crucial to the health of the kelp forest ecosystem. Giant kelp is highly productive, growing up to 18 inches per day under ideal conditions. But a significant amount of this material gets transported away from the ecosystem, washing up on beaches, getting swept out to the open ocean or drifting into the deep sea. Kelp is also rather unpalatable compared to single-celled phytoplankton.
Yorke and her colleagues were curious whether anything might be able to retain this food source within the kelp forest. "We know that kelp affects animals by providing habitat for fish and other species, but does it actually feed any of these animals?" said Bob Miller, a research biologist at the Marine Science Institute and one of the paper's coauthors.
Scientists have hypothesized that kelp sheds small particles that could be a food source. But the team's previous work found that kelp didn't appear to be nourishing the filter feeders in this way. The activity of sloppy sea urchins offered a promising alternative pathway for funneling nutrients from kelp to the ecosystem's detritivore.