Benthic Ecology of vegetated systems: diversity, dynamics and interactions
Due to their role of engineering organisms, seagrasses and macroalgae, including invasive allochthonous species, form important coastal ecosystems throughout the Mediterranean basin. We investigate diversity, dynamics and interactions in these systems. Due to their structural and physiological complexity, our research is conducted by multidisciplinary approaches and at various hierarchical levels, based on individual expertises of the group, and it is supported by taxonomic knowledge and by the use of molecular and eco-physiological techniques. This multidisciplinary research, focusing on key environmental issues, has relevant management applications.
Our research focuses on three main areas:
1. Structural attributes and functional ecology of plant communities (Buia M.C. and Lorenti M). In the frame of a different resilience to disturbances, seagrasses and macroalgae, including allochthonous species, exhibit a variety of responses to environmental changes, due to their bio-ecological properties and to different capabilities to store energy during their life span. The effects of different stressors (e.g., light and temperature) on functional performances of the seagrass Posidonia oceanica and of the green alga Caulerpa racemosa are investigated in order to clarify what causes plant populations to differentiate and to modulate their response to environmental and climate variability, as a key for their ecological success.
2. Plant-animal interactions and reproductive ecology. Some key and model species as well as functional guilds of benthic invertebrates associated to vegetated systems were selected to study their temporal dynamics and functions according to spatial complexity. Effect of diatoms, epiphytes on Posidonia leaves, on the sex reversal and apoptosis of the male gonads of the shrimp Hippolyte inermis was investigated (Zupo V.). The comprehension of these relationships may lead to biotechnological outputs. Studies on polychaetes (Gambi M.C.) and amphipods (Scipione M.B.), at species and assemblage level, are conducted on different benthic systems and at various spatial and temporal scales: coastal soft and hard bottoms off Terra Nova Bay (Ross Sea, Antarctica), Posidonia oceanica systems, and soft-bottoms colonized by the invasive macroalga Caulerpa racemosa.
3. Molecular phylogeography and speciation in marine benthic invertebrates (Patti F.P.) We aim at understanding how different evolutive traits may account for current genetic structure and distribution of invertebrates in the Mediterranean basin, in relation to its complex geological history and to present ecological conditions, as well as circulation patterns. Various model species of molluscs, echinoderms, bryozoans and polychaetes are considered. Molecular and morphometric methods are both used as diagnostic tools to detect cryptic and /or sibling species.
Results obtained within the previously described areas converge into larger and extensive synergistic programs:
1. Dynamics of Posidonia oceanica systems: a multi-level and multi-scale study.
2. Ecology and phylogeography of benthic allochthonous species.