Research ArticleMarine Ecology

Fairy circle landscapes under the sea

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Science Advances  02 Aug 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 8, e1603262
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1603262

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Abstract

Short-scale interactions yield large-scale vegetation patterns that, in turn, shape ecosystem function across landscapes. Fairy circles, which are circular patches bare of vegetation within otherwise continuous landscapes, are characteristic features of semiarid grasslands. We report the occurrence of submarine fairy circle seascapes in seagrass meadows and propose a simple model that reproduces the diversity of seascapes observed in these ecosystems as emerging from plant interactions within the meadow. These seascapes include two extreme cases, a continuous meadow and a bare landscape, along with intermediate states that range from the occurrence of persistent but isolated fairy circles, or solitons, to seascapes with multiple fairy circles, banded vegetation, and “leopard skin” patterns consisting of bare seascapes dotted with plant patches. The model predicts that these intermediate seascapes extending across kilometers emerge as a consequence of local demographic imbalances along with facilitative and competitive interactions among the plants with a characteristic spatial scale of 20 to 30 m, consistent with known drivers of seagrass performance. The model, which can be extended to clonal growth plants in other landscapes showing fairy rings, reveals that the different seascapes observed hold diagnostic power as to the proximity of seagrass meadows to extinction points that can be used to identify ecosystems at risks.

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