Historical global declines of megaherbivores from marine ecosystems have hitherto contributed to an understanding of seagrass meadow production dominated by detrital path- ways — a paradigm increasingly being questioned by recent re-evaluations of the importance of herbivory. Recoveries in green turtle populations at some locations provide an ideal opportunity to examine effects of high megaherbivore densities on the fate of seagrass production. We conducted direct field measurements of aboveground herbivory and shoot elongation rates in 9 seagrass meadows across 3 atolls in the Lakshadweep Archipelago (India) representing a gradient of green turtle densities. Across all meadows, green turtles consumed an average of 60% of the total leaf growth. As expected, herbivory rates were positively related to turtle density and ranged from being almost absent in meadows with few turtles, to potentially overgrazed meadows (ca. 170% of leaf growth) where turtles were abundant. Turtle herbivory also substantially reduced shoot elongation rates. Simulated grazing through clipping experiments confirmed this trend: growth rates rapidly declined to almost half in clipped plots relative to control plots. At green turtle den- sities similar to historical estimates, herbivory not only dominated the fate of seagrass primary pro- duction but also drastically reduced production rates in grazed meadows. Intensive turtle grazing and associated movement could also modify rates of detrital cycling, leaf export and local carbon burial, with important consequences for the entire seascape.
Marine Ecology Progress Series. 485:235-243