- Ecosystems are facing increasing threats from human related activities, such as overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, species invasions, and diseases, among others. While oceanic islands provide natural laboratories to understand ecological and evolutionary process, they are also particularly vulnerable to these impacts, given their usual isolation from the mainland and the typically high endemism of their flora and fauna. However, we still lack a general understanding of how marine systems in the Galapagos Islands will be affected by multiple human impacts, more severe environmental perturbations and warmer oceans.
Rocky shores have been a prime example for the advancement of ecological theories and for the creation of important concepts to support management decisions and conservation actions, such as the predation hypothesis, the keystone
species concept and the development of environmental stress models. However, the majority of this knowledge comes from studies conducted at higher latitudes. While most attention in the tropics has been focused on coral reefs and mangroves, other habitats such as rocky shores have remained largely unexplored.
The upwelling ecosystems of the Galapagos Archipelago constitute an ideal model where likely consequences of interactions between global climate change and human impacts (e.g. exploitation) can be studied. In particular, variation in ocean upwelling and downwelling conditions (Palacios 2004) associated with seasonal and interannual variability and large scale oceanic-atmospheric perturbations such as ENSO cycles with its warm El Niño (~cessation of upwelling conditions) and cold La Niña (~abnormal upwelling) phase (Chavez et al. 1999). Thus, the Galapagos situation offers a scenario whereby I can assess the interaction among nutrient supply, herbivory and abiotic fluctuations.
I used this dynamic system to evaluate the influence of bottom up and top down effects on rocky shore communities. In Chapter 2 I evaluated the role of consumers at different levels of productivity. I manipulated four levels of herbivory, from no macro-herbivores to all herbivores present, combinations of all together, mostly fish, crabs, crabs and including marine iguanas, crabs, sea turtles and fish. I demonstrated that at sites of low productivity herbivores had consistent effects on community structure by reducing the abundance of erect macroalgae which decreased macroalgal and sessile invertebrate's species richness, diversity and evenness. In areas of mid and high productivity the role of consumers was
affected by seasonal effects and by warm and cold phases of El Niño Southern Oscillation.
In Chapter 3 I evaluated the interactive effect of consumers on species richness, diversity and evenness of primary producers and discussed the results in the context of prevailing top down views on the regulation of marine tropical communities. I further discuss the importance to manage both top down and bottom up factors to maintain ecosystem structure and function at tropical locations.
In chapter 4 I used resource and consumer-stress models to predict the outcome of plant animal interactions. I observed how the impact of herbivory on primary producers was exacerbated by thermal stress and reduced algal biomass at times of low productivity and high temperature; this pattern shifted as productivity increased and thermal stress relaxed, which led to herbivores increasing, not decreasing algal biomass.
Finally, chapter 5 provides the main conclusions about our work. I put our work in context of past and present ecological theories. I also offer a framework to manage this system, oriented to increasing the resistance and resilience of this fragile ecosystem.