Marine Invasion in the Mediterranean Sea: The Role of Abiotic Factors When There Is No Biological Resistance

The tropical red alga Womersleyella setacea (Rhodomelaceae, Rhodophyta) is causing increasing concern in the Mediterranean Sea because of its invasive behavior. After its introduction it has colonized most Mediterranean areas, but the mechanism underlying its acclimatization and invasion process remains unknown. To understand this process, we decided i) to assess in situ the seasonal biomass and phenological patterns of populations inhabiting the Mediterranean Sea in relation to the main environmental factors, and ii) to experimentally determine if the tolerance of W. setacea to different light and temperature conditions can explain its colonization success, as well as its bathymetric distribution range. The bathymetric distribution, biomass, and phenology of W. setacea were studied at two localities, and related to irradiance and temperature values recorded in situ. Laboratory experiments were set up to study survival, growth and reproduction under contrasting light and temperature conditions in the short, mid, and long term.Results showed that, in the studied area, the bathymetric distribution of W. setacea is restricted to a depth belt between 25 and 40 m deep, reaching maximum biomass values (126 g dw m−2) at 30 m depth. In concordance, although in the short term W. setacea survived and grew in a large range of environmental conditions, its life requirements for the mid and long term were dim light levels and low temperatures. Biomass of Womersleyella setacea did not show any clear seasonal pattern, though minimum values were reported in spring. Reproductive structures were always absent. Bearing in mind that no herbivores feed on Womersleyella setacea and that its thermal preferences are more characteristic of temperate than of tropical seaweeds, low light (50 µmol photon m−2 s−1) and low temperature (12°C) levels are critical for W. setacea survival and growth, thus probably determining its spread and bathymetric distribution across the Mediterranean Sea ​
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