Morphological variation and phenotypic plasticity of buoyancy in the macroalga Turbinaria ornata across a barrier reef
Many aspects of morphology of benthic algae (length, surface area-to-volume ratio, and blade undulation) are plastic traits that vary in response to physical factors (such as light or water flow environment). This study examines whether frond buoyancy is a plastic trait, and whether differences in morphology including buoyancy affect the potential persistence of macroalgae in habitats characterized by different water flow regimes. Fronds of the tropical alga Turbinaria ornata in protected backreef environments in Moorea, French Polynesia possess pneumatocysts (gas-filled floats) and experience positive buoyant forces, whereas fronds in wave-exposed forereef sites either lack pneumatocysts entirely or have very small, rudimentary pneumatocysts and experience negative buoyant forces. Forereef fronds transplanted to the backreef developed pneumatocysts and experienced increased buoyant force indicating that buoyancy is a phenotypically plastic trait in T. ornata. In comparing the potential for dislodgement by drag, drag was greater on forereef fronds at low flow speeds as these fronds were stiffer and did not bend over at low flow speeds and therefore were less streamlined in the flow than backreef algae, which bent easily. The environmental stress factor (ESF) (a measure of the likelihood of detachment for a frond in its habitat) was higher for forereef than backreef fronds at all flow speeds. When examined with respect to the flow velocities likely in their respective habitats however, the chance of detachment for backreef and forereef was similar. Neither backreef nor forereef fronds were predicted to break under normal, non-storm conditions, but both were predicted to break in storms. Strong forereef morphologies are well suited to habitats characterized by rapid flow, whereas the weaker, buoyant, tall backreef fronds are well suited to habitats where crowding and shading is common but hydrodynamic forces are low.