Warming Threatens to Propel the Expansion of the Exotic Seagrass Halophila stipulacea

Marlene Wesselmann, Rosa M. Chefaoui, Nuria Marba, Ester A. Serrao, Carlos M. Duarte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The spread of exotic species to new areas can be magnified when favored by future climatic conditions. Forecasting future ranges using species distribution models (SDMs) could be improved by considering physiological thresholds, because models solely based on occurrence data cannot account for plasticity due to acclimation of individuals to local conditions over their life-time or to adaptation due to selection within local populations. This is particularly relevant for the exotic seagrass Halophila stipulacea, which colonized the Mediterranean Sea a century ago and shifted its thermal niche, coping with a colder regime. Here, we used two hybrid models combining correlative SDMs with the thermal limits for growth of native and exotic H. stipulacea populations to predict the distribution of the species in its native (Indian Ocean and Red Sea) and exotic ranges (Mediterranean Sea and Caribbean Sea) under two scenarios forecasting limited (RCP 2.6) and severe (RCP 8.5) future climate changes by 2050 and 2100. Then, we assessed the differences between hybrid models based on native Red Sea thermal limits (niche conservatism: 17–36°C) and on exotic Mediterranean thermal limits (local adaptation: 14–36°C). At the Mediterranean exotic range, the local adaptation hybrid model accurately agreed with the present distribution of the species while the niche conservatism-based hybrid model failed to predict 87% of the current occurrences of the species. By contrast, both hybrid models predicted similar species distributions for the native range and exotic Caribbean range at present and projected that H. stipulacea will maintain its current worldwide under all future greenhouse gas emission scenarios. The hybrid model based on Mediterranean thermal limits projected the expansion of H. stipulacea through the western Mediterranean basin (except the gulf of Leon) under the most severe scenario (RCP 8.5) by 2100, increasing its distribution by 50% in the Mediterranean. The future expansion of H. stipulacea is related to its capacity to cope with warm waters and it may become a relevant species in the future, particularly under the projected decline of native Mediterranean seagrasses, resulting in important shifts in seagrass communities and overall ecosystem functions.
Original languageEnglish (US)
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021


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