Geographic variation of southeastern Pacific intertidal communities

Bernardo R. Broitman, Sergio A. Navarrete, Franz Smith, Steven D. Gaines

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We conducted field surveys of rocky intertidal communities at 18 sites distributed between 29°S and 36°S on the coast of central Chile in order to document broad patterns of functional and trophic group abundance and evaluate their association with oceanographic features. Results showed that the main sessile components of the landscape throughout the region were kelps (16 %) and crustose algae (48 %) in the low intertidal zone, while mussels beds (30 %) and corticated algae (32 %) dominated the mid-intertidal zone. Geographic trends in abundance across the entire region varied from no clear regional patterns for some groups (e.g. barnacles), to smooth gradients increasing or decreasing toward higher latitudes for others (kelps and ephemeral algae) and to an abrupt switch from dominant to scarce northward of 32° S in 1 group (mussels). Significant among-site negative correlations were detected between the abundances of most algal functional groups and between mussels and barnacles. Herbivore density was negatively correlated with kelp and corticated algal cover, and positively correlated with crustose algal abundance. These correlations reinforce the notion that local biological interactions can partially account for the among-site variability in functional group abundance. We assessed the influence of mesoscale oceanographic features through satellite image analyses, by classifying the study sites as either strongly or weakly influenced by coastal upwelling. At sites strongly influenced by upwelling, we found significantly higher cover of kelps in the low intertidal zone and of corticated algae in the mid-intertidal zone. Cover of ephemeral algae in the mid-intertidal zone was significantly lower at sites strongly affected by upwelling. Contrary to predictions of bottom-up community regulation models, we found no significant differences in abundance of sessile filter feeders (mussels or barnacles), herbivores or carnivores. A significant proportion of the regional variation in abundance in some of the most abundant functional groups within each tidal level was associated with the latitudinal gradient in annual mean sea surface temperature (SST). We detected a significant correlation between SST and the abundance of kelps and crustose algae in the low intertidal zone, and mussels and ephemeral algae in the mid-intertidal zone. The abrupt change in the abundance of mussels in the mid-intertidal zone at about 32° S may indicate a similarly abrupt change in biological or environmental conditions. Lack of significant correlation between the abundance of mussels and other functional groups suggests that biological interactions may not be responsible for this geographic discontinuity. We suggest that oceanography may be largely involved in the geographic variability detected in patterns of community structure. Recent remote sensing studies documenting oceanographic discontinuities around the 32° S zone support our suggestion. Our results highlight the need for further experimental and oceanographic studies in areas where strong biophysical gradients are observed. Such areas may well reflect the existence of steep oceanographic gradients sensitive to large-scale environmental forcing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-34
Number of pages14
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
StatePublished - 19 Dec 2001


  • Community structure
  • Functional groups
  • Nearshore oceanography
  • Regional variation
  • Upwelling


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