Published online by Cambridge University Press: 09 December 2010
Temporal and spatial fluctuations of environmental parameters are normally assigned as causes of variations in morpho-phenological characters of seaweeds and in their epibionts, but formal tests of such hypotheses are lacking, especially in narrow gradients. The present study evaluated the influence of a very small depth gradient (1 to 3 m) and of subtle seasonality characteristic of tropical areas on morpho-phenological traits and on the occurrence of sessile epiphytic organisms using a controlled orthogonal sampling design in a sublittoral population of the tropical brown alga Sargassum cymosum. Four temporal samples were obtained over a one-year period at three depths using nine replicates. The wet weight, maximum length, number of primary and secondary branches, and proportion of secondary branches with receptacles were recorded. Epibiosis was estimated by visual evaluation of percentage cover on secondary branches. Algal morphology varied as a function of the period of the year (weaker effect) and depth (stronger effect) but in different ways for each variable analysed. In general, fronds tended to be shorter, heavier, and more ramified in shallower areas. In relation to time, the morphological characters tended mostly to present higher values in January (summer) and/or April (autumn). Frequency of receptacles did not depend on algal morphology and depth at all but varied in time, although only in the deepest area. Epibiosis also did not depend on algal morphology but varied in relation to time (stronger effect) and, to a lesser extent, depth (weaker effect). The effect of time upon epibiosis also depended on the biological group analysed. These data support the hypothesis that algal morphology varies in relation to period of the year and depth, even under small temporal and spatial environmenal gradients.