Utilization of Shallow-Water Seagrass Detritus by Carribbean Deep-Sea Macrofauna: δ13C Evidence

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Three dives were made using the DSRV Alvin in the deep-sea basin north of St. Croix, Virgin Islands. Detrital seagrasses and macrofaunal distributions at 2455 to 3950 m depth were assessed quantitatively. Counts of the manatee grass Syringodium filiforme (ca. 5 to 100 blades m-2) contrasted sharply with those of the turtle grass Thalassia testudinum (ca. 0.1 to 2.0 blades m-2), reflecting an abundance proportional to previously reported export rates of the same species from Tague Bay, a nearby shallow source lagoon. Of the macrofaunal consumers that could potentially utilize this detrital nutrient source, three species of holothurians (Mesothuria verrilli, Psychropotes semperiana, and Benthodytes linqua) and two species of sea urchins (Hygrosoma petersi and Salencidaris profundi) were collected and/or observed. Gut content analyses revealed that all three holothurians deposit-feed on sediment and at least one species of sea urchin (H. petersi) feeds almost exclusively on Syringodium. Carbon: nitrogen analyses of naturally occurring abyssal Thalassia detritus showed very low nitrogen content (0.21% N) and a high C:N ratio (214.8), thus yielding a loo nutritional value. Fresh Thalassia blades held in a litter bag experiment (by R. D. Turner) at 3950 m changed little in nitrogen content and C:N ratio after four years. A comparison was made of the stable carbon isotope ratios of 13C:12C for abyssal seagrass detritus and other potential carbon sources with those for tissues from the holothurian and urchin consumers. The results indicate that a significant proportion of the nutrition of both groups is derived from detrital seagrasses either by direct consumption (sea urchins) or indirectly by deposit-feeding on sediments enriched by decomposed seagrasses (holothurians).

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Deep Sea Research Part A, Oceanographic Research Papers, v. 32, issue 2, p. 201-214