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Population structure of the purple sea urchin Heliocidaris erythrogramma along a latitudinal gradient in south-west Australia

  • Dan A. Smale (a1) (a2) (a3) and Thomas Wernberg (a2) (a4)


Sea urchins are key herbivores in many coastal ecosystems. The purple sea urchin, Heliocidaris erythrogramma, is widely distributed across temperate Australia where it exhibits considerable plasticity in feeding behaviour and ecophysiology. In this study we examined H. erythrogramma populations on subtidal reefs along ~4° of latitude in south-west Australia. We used a multi-factorial survey design to assess variability in H. erythrogramma abundances between locations (>200 km part), sites (≥1 km apart) and habitat types (reef flats and slopes). We also examined spatial variability in urchin size, condition (measured by gonad index), and the relative abundances of two co-occurring subspecies. Urchin densities were generally low and did not vary between locations, but did vary between habitat types and amongst sites. Site-level variability in urchin size and condition was also pronounced. The southernmost population comprised smaller individuals and greater relative abundance of the H. e. erythrogramma subspecies, which is abundant on the east coast of Australia. We observed no indication of population-level responses to a recent extreme warming event that impacted the wider ecology of the region, but further investigation into the effects of both gradual warming and short-term climatic events on the ecology of H. erythrogramma and other key herbivores is required.


Corresponding author

Correspondence should be addressed to: Dan A. Smale, Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, The Laboratory, Citadel Hill, Plymouth, PL1 2PB, UK email:


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