Spatial variation patterns of subtidal seaweed assemblages along a subtropical oceanic archipelago: thermal gradient vs herbivore pressure.
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The structure and composition of subtidal rocky seaweed assemblages were studied at 69 sites on the Canary Islands (northeastern Atlantic). This group of islands are situated at the southern boundary of the warm temperate region and adjacent to the cold waters from the northwest African coastal upwelling, which creates a difference of almost 2 C in surface seawater temperature from the eastern to the western islands. This thermal variation allows an examination of the transition between the warm temperate and the tropical regions along this longitudinal gradient together with the hypothesised Fucales-dominated assemblages towards the eastern islands in contrast to the Dictyotales-dominated assemblages towards the western ones. Environmental and biological parameters were considered in order to investigate which were the main factors explaining spatial variation along the gradient in a multi-scaled approach. Although seventy-nine macroalgae were identified, 87.63% of the total mean cover was due to six taxa (Lobophora variegata, nongeniculate corallines, Canistrocarpus cervicornis, Jania adhaerens, Cystoseira abies-marina and Pseudolithoderma adriaticum). At a large scale, sea urchin density explained the highest variation in seaweed assemblages (26.94%), and its pattern of distribution across the islands. The expected pattern of distribution according to the upwelling distance only occurred in restricted areas of the Canarian Archipelago in absence of herbivore pressure and habitat degradation. Spatial variations within islands (medium scale) were mainly related to wave exposure, while at a small scale these were mostly due to the degree of sedimentation.