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The marine jungles: the meadowlands of Posidonia

Posidonia and other seagrasses are one of the most important marine ecosystems on Earth. Many dare to categorize them as the jungles of the sea, for its high biodiversity. It is what we are going to see in this article, especially focusing on the Posidonia oceanica‘s meadows!

WHAT ARE MARINE PHANEROGAMS?

The seagrasses are plants that colonized coastal marine environments, being present in all oceans and seas, except the Antarctic. There are about 66 species.

All have a similar pattern: a horizontal underground rhizome (a thick buried stalk), from which are born the roots and vertical ramifications from where emerge leaves.

Throughout evolution, they have acquired the necessary adaptations to live in an environment with a high concentration of salts. They have the ability to perform underwater pollination by little flowers, in addition to reproduce asexually.

As we have already mentioned, we will focus on Posidonia oceanica, an endemic species of the Mediterranean Sea. It has the typical structure mentioned above, but among its peculiarities there are leaves of 0.5 cm wide and one meter long, grouped in bundles of 4-8 leaves.

pradera posidonia oceanica
Posidonia oceanica’s meadow (Picture: Manu Sanfélix).

In just one square meter can be 10,000 leaves. As a result, the particles that fall to the bottom are trapped and form what is known as “matte”, a very compacted substrate that rises slowly (10-18 cm/century), which acts as a barrier against the waves, favouring the formation of beaches. Do you want to know why we are losing beaches?

Did you know that on the island of Formentera (Balearic Islands, Spain) there have been found an individual of Posidonia older than 100,000 years?

BIODIVERSITY IN POSIDONIA MEADOWS

Posidonia meadows and other seagrasses are ecosystems with high biodiversity. In addition to the organisms living permanently, others reproduce, put the lay or refuge there. There have been described about 1,000 species in them.

Despite the high associated biodiversity, only few species are able to feed on the plant. Examples include salema progies (Sarpa salpa), the green turtle (Chelonia mydas), some sea urchins such as Paracentrotus lividus … all with symbiotic bacteria in the digestive tract.

sarpa salpa
Salema porgy (Sarpa Salpa) (Picture: Jordi Regàs, CIB)

There are many algae and animals that live attached to the leaves or rhizomes, called epiphytes. Examples include the hidrozoa Aglaophenia harpago and the bryozoan Lichenopora radiata. But undoubtedly the most characteristic epiphyte animal on Posidonia is Electra posidoniae. This bryozoan form a narrow structure above the plant’s leaves.

Aglaophenia harpago
Hidrozoa Aglaophenia harpago above Posidonia oceanica (Picture: Peter Jonas).
Lichenopora radiata
Briozoa Lichenopora radiata (Picture: Javier Murcia).
Electra_posidoniae
Briozoa Electra posidoniae (Picture: Jordi Regàs, CIB).

Logically, there are also animals moving on the leaves. These are small animals that feed on epiphytes, such as crustaceans, gastropods (snails and slugs); polychaete, flatworms, nematodes and echinoderms. Examples are the nudibranch Diaphorodoris papillata and the crustacean Idotea hectica.

Nudibranquio Diaphorodoris papillata (Foto: CIB).
Nudibranch Diaphorodoris papillata (Picture: CIB).
Crustáceo Idotea hectica (Foto: David Luquet).
Crustacean Idotea hectica (Picture: David Luquet).

One of the most characteristic animals of the Posidonia oceanica is the nobel pen shell (Pinna nobilis), the biggest Mediterranean mollusc, which can grow to a meter and lives with part of the body buried in sand.

nacra pinna nobilis
Nobel pen shell (Pinna nobilis) (Picture: Maite Vázquez)

Among the echinoderms, it is considered that the starfish Asterina pancerii is the only strictly linked to the meadow, although sea urchins such as Paracentrotus lividus can become very abundant.

Asterina pancerii estrella de mar
Starfish Asterina pancerii (Picture: Jordi Regàs, CIB).
paracentrotus lividus
Sea urchin Paracentrotus lividus (Picture: Jordi Regàs, CIB).

Other animals that roam freely in the meadow are fishes. The painted comber (Serranus scriba) is the most common; but the most unique is Opeatogenys gracilis, green in order to camouflage itself in the leaves. Other that camouflage really good are the fishes from the genus Syngnathus, such as S. typhle and S. acus.

vaca serrana serranus scriba
Painted comber (Serranus scriba) (Picture: Jordi Regàs, CIB).
Opeatogenys gracilis pez ventosa
Opeatogenys gracilis (Picture: Manuel Campillo).
syngnathus typhle
Syngnathus typhle (Picture: Sea Horse Project).

POSIDONIA HAS A HIGH ECOLOGICAL IMPORTANCE

As we have seen, Posidonia meadows are areas with high biodiversity of animal and plant species. So, it is home to many species at different stages of their life cycle.

But its importance goes further. Due to its growth through underground rhizomes, Posidonia retains the sand and, century after century, forms a natural barrier that provides protection for the coast, allowing the formation and gives stability to beaches, dunes and coastal forests.

Finally, a lot of organic matter is dispersed by currents and waves to other ecosystems.

REFERENCES

  • Ballesteros, E & Llobet, T (2015). Fauna i flora de la mar Mediterrpania. Ed. Brau
  • Departament de Medi Ambient, Generalitat de Catalunya (2002). Biodiversidad y medio marino.  Mediterrània viva. Editorial Anthias SL.
  • Minguell, J (2008). Flora i fauna del Mediterrani.
  • Ruiz, JM; Guillén, JE; Ramos Segura, A & Otero MM (Eds) (2015). Altas de las praderas marinas de España. IEO/IEL/UICN. Murcia-Alicante-Málaga. 681 pp.
  • Triptych: Las praderas de Posidonia en peligro. Parc Natural del Montgrí, les Illes Medes i el Baix Ter.
  • Cover picture: G. Pergent (INPN).

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