The ecology of an epibiont may depend not only on the dynamics of its biogenic habitat but also on microclimate variation generated within aggregations of its host, a process called physical ecosystem engineering. This study explored variation in the abundance and demography of Membranipora
, a suspension-feeding bryozoan, within forests of giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera
) off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, USA. First, we assessed differences in Membranipora
abundance between the edge and interior of kelp forests. The occurrence of Membranipora
on kelp blades and its percent cover on occupied blades were higher along forest edges than interiors. Second, we conducted observational studies and field experiments to understand spatial variation in substrate longevity, colony mortality, larval recruitment, and colony growth rates. A higher density of recruits and colonies occurred along forest edges than interiors, suggesting kelp acts like a sieve, whereby larvae settle to edge blades first. Moreover, growth rates along the edge were up to 45% higher than forest interiors. Reduced current speeds, combined with feeding by exterior colonies, may have lowered the uptake of suspended food particles by interior colonies. These results suggest that variation in Membranipora
abundance is due in part to differences in colony growth between forest edges and interiors, and not solely the result of recruitment limitation. Our results highlight the importance of ecosystem engineers in influencing the ecological dynamics of epiphytic flora and fauna in marine systems.
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