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Biological Traits of Rafting Invertebrates on Floating Litter

Given the specific habitat conditions on floating marine litter, it can be expected that certain biological traits will predominate among the assemblage of rafting organisms. Of the 215 invertebrate species considered for this analysis, 25 (12 %) have been classified as obligate rafters that live exclusively on floating objects. 165 species (77 %) are facultative rafters that occupy benthic habitats as well. For 25 species (12 %) the available information was not sufficient to determine their raft status.


Fifty-nine percent of the rafting species on floating litter are fully sessile whereas 5 % of the species can be classified as semi-sessile (with the ability to detach and re-attach). Only 27 % of the reported species are mobile, for the remaining species the information was insufficient. In contrast to these numbers, Astudillo et al. (2009) and Goldstein et al. (2014) found more mobile than sessile taxa on floating litter, indicating that the inclusion of studies from beached litter is likely leading to an underestimation of mobile taxa. Nevertheless, the high proportion of sessile and semi-sessile species highlights the necessity for a firm attachment of rafting species to the often smooth and solid abiotic surfaces of floating litter items. It further illustrates the often low structural complexity of litter items compared to, for example, floating macroalgae which host a much higher proportion of mobile species that can efficiently cling to the often complex algal thalli with numerous branches and highly structured holdfasts (Thiel and Gutow 2005a). Disadvantages for sessile organisms arise when unstable rafts change positions and expose organisms to surface conditions (Bravo et al. 2011), or if the raft sinks or strands (Winston 2012).

Feeding Biology

The great majority (72 %) of the rafting taxa on marine floating litter are suspension feeders whereas only 7 % of the species feed as grazers and borers, and 9 % as predators and scavengers (for the remaining 12 % no feeding mode could be identified). The high proportion of suspension feeders on marine litter is not surprising. Abiotic floating substrata are of no nutritional value for associated rafters, making them dependent on food from the surrounding environment. On floating seaweeds, which are consumed by associated herbivores, the proportion of suspension feeders is substantially lower (approx. 40 %) and the proportion of grazers and borers higher (approx. 20 %—Thiel and Gutow 2005a). Rafting suspension feeders benefit from the concentration of their rafts and suspended organic material in surface fronts generated by the convergence of surface waters, wind-induced Langmuir cells and other surface features (Woodcock 1993; Marmorino et al. 2011). The accumulation of suspended matter and nutrients in these convergence zones apparently fuels diverse rafting communities on floating abiotic substrata, which also encompass primary producers, herbivores, and predators.

Reproductive Traits

Forty-eight percent of the rafting invertebrate species on marine floating litter reproduce sexually (of which 42 % are hermaphroditic and 58 % are gonochoric) and 38 % have, at least theoretically, the ability to reproduce both sexually and asexually while for 14 % of the species no information on the reproductive mode is available. Bryozoans, constituting most of the species that are capable of asexual and sexual reproduction, reproduce primarily asexually. This facilitates establishment and rapid local spread. However, encrusting bryozoans seem to reproduce exclusively sexually (Thomsen and Hakansson 1995). Bryozoans also perform “spermcast mating” where sperm is accumulated from the surrounding water and stored prior to fertilization (Bishop and Pemberton 2006), a strategy which appears particularly beneficial for rafting organisms because there may be no (or only few) conspecifics nearby. If bryozoans grow in isolation many have the ability to self-fertilize rather than to rely on neighbouring colonies (Maturo 1991 cited by Winston et al. 1997).

About 9 % of the rafting species on marine litter have benthic larvae or larvae with a short pelagic development of less than two days and 12 % release fully developed individuals. Thirty percent of the species have pelagic larvae with an extended planktonic phase of up to several weeks. For 49 % of the invertebrate species no details on larval biology were available. Winston et al. (1997) suggest that long-lived larvae may be beneficial for settlement on litter floating in the open ocean, although upwelling events and storms may facilitate the colonization of litter items by species with short larval development. Astudillo et al. (2009) found mainly rafters with short larval development or direct development on floating buoys in the south-eastern Pacific, a region under influence of upwelling regimes. Stevens et al. (1996) also reported many bryozoans with short larval development on beached litter in northern New Zealand. Given the long distances floating litter can travel, some stranded items may have been under the influence of upwelling regions as described for the South Taranaki Bight (summarized by Foster and Battaerd 1985), approximately 500 km to the south of the sampled location.

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