The invasive seaweed Asparagopsis taxiformis erodes the habitat structure and biodiversity of native algal forests in the Mediterranean Sea.
Invasive seaweeds are listed among the most relevant threats to marine ecosystems worldwide. Biodiversity hotspots, such as the Mediterranean Sea, are facing multiple invasions and are expected to be severely affected by the introduction of new non-native seaweeds in the near future. In this study, we evaluated the consequences of the shift from the native Ericaria brachycarpa to the invasive Asparagopsis taxiformis habitat on the shallow rocky shores of Favignana Island (Egadi Islands, MPA, Sicily, Italy). We compared algal biomass and species composition and structure of the associated epifaunal assemblages in homogenous and mixed stands of E. brachycarpa and A. taxiformis. The results showed that the biomass of primary producers is reduced by 90% in the A. taxiformis invaded habitat compared to the E. brachycarpa native habitat. The structure of the epifaunal assemblages displayed significant variations among homogenous and mixed stands. The abundance, species richness and Shannon-Wiener diversity index of the epifaunal assemblages decreased by 89%, 78% and 40%, respectively, from homogenous stands of the native E. brachycarpa to the invasive A. taxiformis. Seaweed biomass was the structural attribute better explaining the variation in epifaunal abundance, species richness and diversity. Overall, our results suggest that the shift from E. brachycarpa to A. taxiformis habitat would drastically erode the biomass of primary producers and the associated biodiversity. We hypothesize that a complete shift from native to invasive seaweeds could ultimately lead to bottom-up effects on rocky shore habitats, with negative consequences for the ecosystem structure, functioning, and the services provided.