Population structure of an introduced species (Dreissena polymorpha) along a wave-swept disturbance gradient

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The zebra mussel Dreissena polymorpha was introduced to North America during the mid-1980s, and is now a dominant member of many benthic communities in the lower Great Lakes. In this study, I explored the abundance, biomass, size structure and settlement of Dreissena inhabiting rocks along a wave-swept disturbance gradient near Middle Sister Island in western Lake Erie. Ten rocks were collected from quadrats at six sites along each of three transect lines oriented perpendicular to shore. Occurrence, abundance and biomass of Dreissena on smaller, movable rocks were positively associated with rock distance from shore (∼lake depth) and with rock area; rocks at nearshore sites supported little, if any, Dreissena, whereas those at offshore sites were heavily colonized. Mussel size distributions also differed in relation to shore distance. Large mussels (≥19 mm) were underrepresented or absent on rocks collected at nearshore sites, but were overrepresented at offshore locations (≥37 m). Settlement of larval mussels on settling pads was positively correlated with distance offshore and with time of exposure, though settlement was substantial even at a nearshore (10 m) location. Area-adjusted mussel dry mass increased more rapidly with distance offshore on large than on small rocks. Large rocks also required more force to displace and were significantly less likely to be disturbed when transplanted at the study site. Results from this study indicate that occurrence, abundance and size structure of Dreissena in nearshore waters of Lake Erie correspond with the frequency of habitat disturbance, though other factors including food limitation and larval supply may also contribute to these patterns. These patterns complement studies that established the significance of physical disturbance in other aquatic systems.