Sea urchin Arbacia punctulata feeding preference for algal turf over kelp in a degraded kelp forest ecosystem

Sophia R. Kelly, Kenneth Hamel, Carla A. Narvaez, Thomas J. Armstrong, Sean P. Grace, Colette J. Feehan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Climate change is driving a shift in the distribution of global kelp forests, with the contraction of kelp habitats occurring at warm range edges. Declining kelps often have been replaced by novel algal turf assemblages, which are reinforced by ecological feedback mechanisms and provide fewer ecosystem services. Trophic interactions among marine herbivores, algal turfs, and kelps on algal turf-dominated reefs remain poorly resolved but could have important implications for the stability of algal turf reefs and the potential for kelp forest recovery. Here, we examine herbivory by the Atlantic purple sea urchin, Arbacia punctulata, in a degraded kelp forest ecosystem dominated by algal turf in southern New England, USA. In a localized field survey, we observed lower algal turf cover on reef areas containing A. punctulata (mean ± SE: 62 ± 12% turf cover) as compared to areas with no sea urchins present (92 ± 4% turf cover). Reef areas with and without sea urchins had similarly low cover of the previously dominant kelp, Saccharina latissima (6–8% kelp cover). In laboratory and field experiments, individuals or groups of A. punctulata enclosed with a diet choice of algal turf versus kelp had higher grazing rates on the algal turf. A. punctulata in the laboratory also exhibited greater attraction to algal turf over kelp, physically moving towards this food source. In combination, the results provide evidence that A. punctulata has a feeding preference for algal turf over kelp in southern New England. Future research is warranted to further examine the grazing ecology of A. punctulata, particularly in the context of ongoing kelp forest restoration efforts in this region.

Original languageEnglish
Article number151976
JournalJournal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
StatePublished - Feb 2024


  • Herbivory
  • Northwest Atlantic
  • Regime shift
  • Restoration
  • Saccharina latissima


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