Nonnative Gracilaria vermiculophylla tetrasporophytes are more difficult to debranch and are less nutritious than gametophytes.
Theory predicts that the maintenance of haplodiplontic life cycles requires ecological differences between the haploid gametophytes and diploid sporophytes, yet evidence of such differences remain scarce. The haplodiplontic red seaweed Gracilaria vermiculophylla has invaded the temperate estuaries of the Northern Hemisphere, where it commonly modifies detrital and trophic pathways. In native populations, abundant hard substratum enables spore settlement, and gametophyte: tetrasporophyte ratios are ∼40:60. In contrast, many non-native populations persist in soft-sediment habitats without abundant hard substratum, and can be 90%-100% tetrasporophytic. To test for ecologically relevant phenotypic differences, we measured thallus morphology, protein content, organic content, "debranching resistance" (i.e., tensile force required to remove a branch from its main axis node), and material properties between male gametophytes, female gametophytes, and tetrasporophytes from a single, nonnative site in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, USA in 2015 and 2016. Thallus length and surface area to volume ratio differed between years, but were not significantly different between ploidies. Tetrasporophytes had lower protein content than gametophytes, suggesting the latter may be more attractive to consumers. More force was required to pull a branch from the main axis of tetrasporophytes relative to gametophytes. A difference in debranching resistance may help to maintain tetrasporophyte thallus durability relative to gametophytes, providing a potential advantage in free-floating populations. These data may shed light on the invasion ecology of an important ecosystem engineer, and may advance our understanding of life cycle evolution and the maintenance of life cycle diversity.