Tiny Sea Creatures Keeping Marine Ecosystems Healthy

In a new study from the Virginia Institute of Science and the USGS, small sea creatures that are about the size of a thumbtack help protect seagrasses and other sea life from an overpopulation of algae.

Researchers found that small plant-eating animals consume algae that grow on seagrass, helping preserve the grass as seafood for other aquatic life. Since seagrass habitats are also beneficial to humans, this study helps raise the awareness of the small algae grazers.

According to Matt Whalen, the study’s lead author, said, “Inconspicuous creatures often play big roles in supporting productive ecosystems. Think of how vital honeybees are for pollinating tree crops or what our soils would look like if we did not have earthworms. In seagrass systems, tiny grazers promote healthy seagrasses by ensuring algae is quickly consumed rather than overgrowing the seagrass. And by providing additional refuge from predators, fleshy seaweeds that drift in and out of seagrass beds can maintain larger grazer populations and enhance their positive impact on seagrass.”

“Not only do these areas serve as nurseries for commercially important fish and shellfish, such as blue crabs, red drum, and some Pacific rockfish, but they also help clean our water and buffer our coastal communities by providing shoreline protection from storms. These tiny animals, by going about their daily business of grazing, are integral to keeping healthy seagrass beds healthy,” stated Jim Grace, USGS scientist and coauthor of the study.

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