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Clams keep seagrasses happy, healthy: in drought, breaking plant-mollusk alliance speeds degradation.

Clamming up could help underwater seagrass meadows better withstand drought, heatwaves and climate change.

Breakdown of a symbiotic bond between seagrasses along the West African coast and tiny lucinid clams can exacerbate damage in hard times, researchers say online March 10 in Current Biology. So protecting meadows may mean worrying just as much about the partnership as the seagrasses themselves, says coauthor Tjisse van der Heide of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Seagrasses aren't seaweed. They're genuine flowering plants whose terrestrial ancestors over about 100 million years adapted to a salty underwater life that would quickly kill most land plants (SN: 12/5/09, p. 22).

Clams help ease one risk of this life: debris breakdown that goes toxic. The plants' own dead leaves plus floating bits of dead stuff and waste, from nearby land or sea, snag in a seagrass meadow's expanse of swaying leaves. Sea-bottom microbes that break down the rain of debris release sulfides, which can poison the plants.

In 2012, van der Heide and colleagues proposed that in some seagrass communities, clams burrowing among the plant roots help detoxify sulfides. The Loripes clams and other members of the lucinid group benefit from oxygen that roots give off, and the sulfides from debris breakdown nourish symbiotic bacteria in the clams. As the bacteria feast, they leak sugars that feed their clams, and the toxic sulfides are turned into harmless sulfates.

Not every seagrass meadow has lucinid clams, but intertidal meadows at Banc d'Arguin in Mauritania do. The clam density there can average 1,500 to 2,000 small clams per square meter in the top 10 centimeters or so of mud. At low tides, mats of seagrasses lie exposed to air for hours at a time. During the severe drought of 2011, the hot, thirsty air desiccated swaths of the meadow. Dying plants faltered in oxygenating the clams and their bacteria, causing a cascade of effects that weakened the detoxification process.

As drought-stricken seagrasses and clams failed to provide each other with benefits, a feedback loop of increasingly worse performance for both partners accelerated their demise. That's the scenario van der Heide and colleagues draw from satellite data of the meadow during the drought. Seeing considerable living patches mix with dead zones at the same elevation and exposed to the same climate conditions points to something--such as a mutualism breakdown--speeding the change from leafy to bald.

Comparing seagrass patches that died with patches that survived, van der Heide and colleagues propose that maintaining the clam partnership made a difference. Of 32 plots of meadow, the half where seagrasses survived the drought had nine times as many clams as the dead zones. These survival spots also averaged only about a quarter of the toxic sulfides.

This mutualism may be important in Banc d'Arguin but has yet to be demonstrated as a more general phenomenon, says marine ecologist Carlos Duarte of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia.

Caption: An underwater meadow of seagrasses off Mauritania trades oxygen for detoxification services from tiny, bacteria-fostering clams.


Please note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.

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Title Annotation:LIFE & EVOLUTION
Author:Milius, Susan
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 16, 2016
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