In Nova Scotia, Canada, periodic outbreaks of amoebic disease (paramoebiasis) cause mass mortality of sea urchins Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis in subtidal barrens. However, in kelp beds, where sea urchins are cryptic and generally less dense than in barrens, disease outbreaks are not readily observed and the importance of disease in regulating these populations is unknown. To determine whether sea urchin populations in kelp beds are controlled by disease, we analyzed population data from kelp beds at a single location (St. Margarets Bay) across a span of 44 yr (1968 to 2012) to compare changes in size structure and density in relation to the timing of disease outbreaks in adjacent sea urchin aggregations and barrens. We found that sea urchin density, maximum test diameter and percentage of adults decreased following disease outbreaks and increased during intervening periods without disease, indicating that disease regulates the population in kelp beds by limiting survival to adulthood. Our results suggest that disease has replaced predation as a major agent controlling sea urchin populations in Nova Scotian kelp beds.
- Kelp beds
- Phase shift
- Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis