A group of predominantly Dutch scientists have revealed the reasons for the ecological success of seagrasses and in turn its associated organism the Lucinid molluscs. Seagrass meadows, as we know is an important kind of habitat for various organisms like coral reef fishes, reptiles (like turtles), waterbirds and mammals (dugongs, manatees), and is a basic environment for these organisms’ survivor-ship.
They survive till now, but as the paper points out it is a mystery how they do it. The sediments trap high organic matter content which in turn is fodder for some bacteria that revel in oxygen lacking environment and take up the sulfite present and produce sulfides as an end product of their metabolism. This sulfide is toxic to seagrass, so how do seagrass survive? This is the question asked by the researchers, they analysed data from world-wide, and formulated hypothesis and did experiments to prove their guess.
In their meta-analysis they found that a specific type of bivalve (Lucinidae) is associated with seagrass in more than 90% of the tropical and subtropical seagrass beds and in more than 50% of temperate seagrass meadows. This points that temperature-dependent sulfide deposition in tropics favours the association of the bivalve with the seagrass.
The bivalves harbours a symbiotic bacteria that metabolises sulfide and in turn benefits the mollusc, which sequesters sulfide and oxygen for the symbiont, by providing sugars. This association has been dated back to the Silurian (416 million years ago [Ma]; see the paper for detailed references), however the diversification of the mollusc and its associated symbiont is dated back only to the Cretaceous (145-65 Ma) when the seagrass emerged, the diversification of seagrass was in the Eocene but the symbiosis between them and the mollusc still continues, the probable diversification was aided by the help rendered by their symbiont mollusc to stabilize at first hand some 50 Ma .
The authors hypothesised that the association between the mollusc (with the endosymbiont which metabolises sulfides), could have helped in the survival of the seagrass which would otherwise have perished due to the high sulfide content in the sediments. The do experiments and prove that is the case.
We read yet another paper which really observes, hypothesizes and proves. It provides evidence of diversification of the mollusc and seagrass were interdependent, while 11 out of 12 seagrass genera harboured associated molluscs 18 genera (~50% of Lucinidae genera) of the molluscs are associated with seagrass. Basic research like this would help the restoration programs for sea-grasses which is not yet a big success. Such basic research into the function of the ecosystem, its components, interactions etc. are the need of the hour.
Tjisse van der Heide, Laura L. Govers, Jimmy de Fouw, Han Olff, Matthijs van der Geest, Marieke M. van Katwijk, Theunis Piersma, Johan van de Koppel, Brian R. Silliman, Alfons J. P. Smolders, Jan A. van Gils, 2012. A Three-Stage Symbiosis Forms the Foundation of Seagrass Ecosystems. Science, 336:6087, 1432-1434.