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Zostera marina is the most abundant seagrass species in the Northern Hemisphere
Zostera marina is the most abundant seagrass species in the Northern Hemisphere

Seagrasses are the (only) flowering plants which grow in marine environments. There are about 60 species of fully marine seagrasses which belong to four families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae and Cymodoceaceae), all in the order Alismatales (in the class of monocotyledons).[1] Seagrasses evolved from terrestrial plants which recolonised the ocean 70 to 100 million years ago.

The name seagrass stems from the many species with long and narrow leaves, which grow by rhizome extension and often spread across large "meadows" resembling grassland; many species superficially resemble terrestrial grasses of the family Poaceae.

Like all autotrophic plants, seagrasses photosynthesize, in the submerged photic zone, and most occur in shallow and sheltered coastal waters anchored in sand or mud bottoms. Most species undergo submarine pollination and complete their life cycle underwater.

Seagrasses form dense underwater seagrass meadows which are among the most productive ecosystems in the world. They function as important carbon sinks and provide habitats and food for a diversity of marine life comparable to that of coral reefs.


Evolution of seagrass Showing the progression onto land from marine origins, the diversification of land plants and the subsequent return to the sea by the seagrasses.
Evolution of seagrass
Showing the progression onto land from marine origins, the diversification of land plants and the subsequent return to the sea by the seagrasses.

Terrestrial plants evolved perhaps as early as 450 million years ago from a group of green algae.[2] Seagrasses then evolved from terrestrial plants which migrated back into the ocean.[3][4] Between about 70 million and 100 million years ago, the three independent seagrass lineages (Hydrocharitaceae, Cymodoceaceae complex, and Zosteraceae) evolved from a single lineage of monocotyledonous flowering plants.[5]

Other plants that colonised the sea, such as salt marsh plants, mangroves, and marine algae, have more diverse evolutionary lineages. In spite of their low species diversity, seagrasses have succeeded in colonising the continental shelves of all continents except Antarctica.[6]


Family Image Genera Description
Zosteraceae The family Zosteraceae, also known as the seagrass family, includes two genera containing 14 marine species. It is found in temperate and subtropical coastal waters, with the highest diversity located around Korea and Japan.

Species subtotal:  

Phyllospadix 6 species  
Zostera 16 species  
Hydrocharitaceae The family Hydrocharitaceae, also known as tape-grasses, include Canadian waterweed and frogbit. The family includes both fresh and marine aquatics, although of the sixteen genera currently recognised, only three are marine.[7] They are found throughout the world in a wide variety of habitats, but are primarily tropical.

Species subtotal:  

Enhalus 1 species  
Halophila 19 species  
Thalassia 2 species  
Posidoniaceae The family Posidoniaceae contains a single genus with two to nine marine species found in the seas of the Mediterranean and around the south coast of Australia.

Species subtotal: 2 to 9  

Posidonia 2 to 9 species  
Cymodoceaceae The family Cymodoceaceae, also known as manatee-grass, includes only marine species.[8] Some taxonomists do not recognized this family.

Species subtotal:  

Amphibolis 2 species  
Cymodocea 4 species  
Halodule 6 species  
Syringodium 2 species  
Thalassodendron 3 species  
Total species:   

Intertidal and subtidal seagrasses

Morphological and photoacclimatory responsesof intertidal and subtidal Zostera marina eelgrass [9]
Morphological and photoacclimatory responses
of intertidal and subtidal Zostera marina eelgrass [9]

Seagrasses occurring in the intertidal and subtidal zones are exposed to highly variable environmental conditions due to tidal changes.[10][11] Seagrasses in the intertidal zone are regularly exposed to air and consequently experience extreme high and low temperatures, high photoinhibitory irradiance, and desiccation stress relative to subtidal seagrass.[11][12][13] Such extreme temperatures can lead to significant seagrass dieback when seagrasses are exposed to air during low tide.[14][15][16] Desiccation stress during low tide has been considered the primary factor limiting seagrass distribution at the upper intertidal zone.[17] Seagrasses residing the intertidal zone are usually smaller than those in the subtidal zone to minimize the effects of emergence stress.[18][15] Intertidal seagrasses also show light-dependent responses, such as decreased photosynthetic efficiency and increased photoprotection during periods of high irradiance and air exposure.[19][20]

In contrast, seagrasses in the subtidal zone adapt to reduced light conditions caused by light attenuation and scattering due to the overlaying water column and suspended particles.[22][23] Seagrasses in the deep subtidal zone generally have longer leaves and wider leaf blades than those in the shallow subtidal or intertidal zone, which allows more photosynthesis, in turn resulting in greater growth.[13] Seagrasses also respond to reduced light conditions by increasing chlorophyll content and decreasing the chlorophyll a/b ratio to enhance light absorption efficiency by using the abundant wavelengths efficiently.[24][25][26] As seagrasses in the intertidal and subtidal zones are under highly different light conditions, they exhibit distinctly different photoacclimatory responses to maximize photosynthetic activity and photoprotection from excess irradiance.

Seagrasses assimilate large amounts of inorganic carbon to achieve high level production.[27][28] Marine macrophytes, including seagrass, use both CO2 and HCO
(bicarbonate) for photosynthetic carbon reduction.[29][30][31] Despite air exposure during low tide, seagrasses in the intertidal zone can continue to photosynthesize utilizing CO2 in the air.[32] Thus, the composition of inorganic carbon sources for seagrass photosynthesis probably varies between intertidal and subtidal plants. Because stable carbon isotope ratios of plant tissues change based on the inorganic carbon sources for photosynthesis,[33][34] seagrasses in the intertidal and subtidal zones may have different stable carbon isotope ratio ranges.

Seagrass microbiome

Processes within the seagrass holobiont
The most important interconnected processes within the seagrass holobiont are related to processes in the carbon-, nitrogen- and sulfur cycles. Photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) determines the photosynthetic activity of the seagrass plant that determines how much carbon dioxide is fixed, how much dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is exuded from the leaves and root system, and how much oxygen is transported into the rhizosphere. Oxygen transportation into the rhizosphere alters the redox conditions in the rhizosphere, differentiating it from the surrounding sediments that are usually anoxic and sulfidic.[35][36]

Seagrass holobiont

The concept of the holobiont, which emphasizes the importance and interactions of a microbial host with associated microorganisms and viruses and describes their functioning as a single biological unit,[37] has been investigated and discussed for many model systems, although there is substantial criticism of a concept that defines diverse host-microbe symbioses as a single biological unit.[38] The holobiont and hologenome concepts have evolved since the original definition,[39] and there is no doubt that symbiotic microorganisms are pivotal for the biology and ecology of the host by providing vitamins, energy and inorganic or organic nutrients, participating in defense mechanisms, or by driving the evolution of the host.[40] Although most work on host-microbe interactions has been focused on animal systems such as corals, sponges, or humans, there is a substantial body of literature on plant holobionts.[41] Plant-associated microbial communities impact both key components of the fitness of plants, growth and survival,[42] and are shaped by nutrient availability and plant defense mechanisms.[43] Several habitats have been described to harbor plant-associated microbes, including the rhizoplane (surface of root tissue), the rhizosphere (periphery of the roots), the endosphere (inside plant tissue), and the phyllosphere (total above-ground surface area).[35]

Seagrass meadows

Seagrass beds/meadows can be either monospecific (made up of a single species) or in mixed beds. In temperate areas, usually one or a few species dominate (like the eelgrass Zostera marina in the North Atlantic), whereas tropical beds usually are more diverse, with up to thirteen species recorded in the Philippines.

Seagrass beds are diverse and productive ecosystems, and can harbor hundreds of associated species from all phyla, for example juvenile and adult fish, epiphytic and free-living macroalgae and microalgae, mollusks, bristle worms, and nematodes. Few species were originally considered to feed directly on seagrass leaves (partly because of their low nutritional content), but scientific reviews and improved working methods have shown that seagrass herbivory is an important link in the food chain, feeding hundreds of species, including green turtles, dugongs, manatees, fish, geese, swans, sea urchins and crabs. Some fish species that visit/feed on seagrasses raise their young in adjacent mangroves or coral reefs.

Seagrasses trap sediment and slow down water movement, causing suspended sediment to settle out. Trapping sediment benefits coral by reducing sediment loads, improving photosynthesis for both coral and seagrass.[44]

Seagrass bed with several echinoids
Seagrass bed with several echinoids
Seagrass bed with dense turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and an immature queen conch (Eustrombus gigas)
Seagrass bed with dense turtle grass (Thalassia testudinum) and an immature queen conch (Eustrombus gigas)

Although often overlooked, seagrasses provide a number of ecosystem services.[45][46] Seagrasses are considered ecosystem engineers.[47][4][3] This means that the plants alter the ecosystem around them. This adjusting occurs in both physical and chemical forms. Many seagrass species produce an extensive underground network of roots and rhizome which stabilizes sediment and reduces coastal erosion.[48] This system also assists in oxygenating the sediment, providing a hospitable environment for sediment-dwelling organisms.[47] Seagrasses also enhance water quality by stabilizing heavy metals, pollutants, and excess nutrients.[49][4][3] The long blades of seagrasses slow the movement of water which reduces wave energy and offers further protection against coastal erosion and storm surge. Furthermore, because seagrasses are underwater plants, they produce significant amounts of oxygen which oxygenate the water column. These meadows account for more than 10% of the ocean's total carbon storage. Per hectare, it holds twice as much carbon dioxide as rain forests and can sequester about 27.4 million tons of CO2 annually.[50] The storage of carbon is an essential ecosystem service as we move into a period of elevated atmospheric carbon levels. However, some climate change models suggest that some seagrasses will go extinct – Posidonia oceanica is expected to go extinct, or nearly so, by 2050.

Seagrass meadows provide food for many marine herbivores. Sea turtles, manatees, parrotfish, surgeonfish, sea urchins and pinfish feed on seagrasses. Many other smaller animals feed on the epiphytes and invertebrates that live on and among seagrass blades.[51] Seagrass meadows also provide physical habitat in areas that would otherwise be bare of any vegetation. Due to this three dimensional structure in the water column, many species occupy seagrass habitats for shelter and foraging. It is estimated that 17 species of coral reef fish spend their entire juvenile life stage solely on seagrass flats.[52] These habitats also act as a nursery grounds for commercially and recreationally valued fishery species, including the gag grouper (Mycteroperca microlepis), red drum, common snook, and many others.[53][54] Some fish species utilize seagrass meadows and various stages of the life cycle. In a recent publication, Dr. Ross Boucek and colleagues discovered that two highly sought after flats fish, the common snook and spotted sea trout provide essential foraging habitat during reproduction.[55] Sexual reproduction is extremely energetically expensive to be completed with stored energy; therefore, they require seagrass meadows in close proximity to complete reproduction.[55] Furthermore, many commercially important invertebrates also reside in seagrass habitats including bay scallops (Argopecten irradians), horseshoe crabs, and shrimp. Charismatic fauna can also be seen visiting the seagrass habitats. These species include West Indian manatee, green sea turtles, and various species of sharks. The high diversity of marine organisms that can be found on seagrass habitats promotes them as a tourist attraction and a significant source of income for many coastal economies along the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean.

Relation to humans

Historically, seagrasses were collected as fertilizer for sandy soil. This was an important use in the Aveiro Lagoon, Portugal, where the plants collected were known as moliço.

In the early 20th century, in France and, to a lesser extent, the Channel Islands, dried seagrasses were used as a mattress (paillasse) filling - such mattresses were in high demand by French forces during World War I. It was also used for bandages and other purposes.

In February 2017, researchers found that seagrass meadows may be able to remove various pathogens from seawater. On small islands without wastewater treatment facilities in central Indonesia, levels of pathogenic marine bacteria – such as Enterococcus – that affect humans, fish and invertebrates were reduced by 50 percent when seagrass meadows were present, compared to paired sites without seagrass,[56] although this could be a detriment to their survival.[57]

Disturbances and threats

Natural disturbances, such as grazing, storms, ice-scouring and desiccation, are an inherent part of seagrass ecosystem dynamics. Seagrasses display a high degree of phenotypic plasticity, adapting rapidly to changing environmental conditions.

Seagrasses are in global decline, with some 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi) lost during recent decades. The main cause is human disturbance, most notably eutrophication, mechanical destruction of habitat, and overfishing. Excessive input of nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus) is directly toxic to seagrasses, but most importantly, it stimulates the growth of epiphytic and free-floating macro- and micro-algae. This weakens the sunlight, reducing the photosynthesis that nourishes the seagrass and the primary production results.

Decaying seagrass leaves and algae fuels increasing algal blooms, resulting in a positive feedback. This can cause a complete regime shift from seagrass to algal dominance. Accumulating evidence also suggests that overfishing of top predators (large predatory fish) could indirectly increase algal growth by reducing grazing control performed by mesograzers, such as crustaceans and gastropods, through a trophic cascade.

Macroalgal blooms cause the decline and eradication of seagrasses. Known as nuisance species, macroalgae grow in filamentous and sheet-like forms and form thick unattached mats over seagrass, occurring as epiphytes on seagrass leaves. Eutrophication leads to the forming of a bloom, causing the attenuation of light in the water column, which eventually leads to anoxic conditions for the seagrass and organisms living in/around the plant(s). In addition to the direct blockage of light to the plant, benthic macroalgae have low carbon/nitrogen content, causing their decomposition to stimulate bacterial activity, leading to sediment resuspension, an increase in water turbidity and further light attenuation.[58][59]

When humans drive motor boats over shallow seagrass areas, sometimes the propeller blade can damage the seagrass.

The most-used methods to protect and restore seagrass meadows include nutrient and pollution reduction, marine protected areas and restoration using seagrass transplanting. Seagrass is not seen as resilient to the impacts of future environmental change.[60]


In various locations, communities are attempting to restore seagrass beds that were lost to human action, including in the US states of Virginia,[61] Florida[62] and Hawaii,[63] as well as the United Kingdom.[64] Such reintroductions have been shown to improve ecosystem services.[65]

As of 2019 the Coastal Marine Ecosystems Research Centre of Central Queensland University has been growing seagrass for six years and has been producing seagrass seeds. They have been running trials in germination and sowing techniques.[66]

See also


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Further references

  • den Hartog, C. 1970. The Sea-grasses of the World. Verhandl. der Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, Afd. Natuurkunde, No. 59(1).
  • Duarte, Carlos M. and Carina L. Chiscano “Seagrass biomass and production: a reassessment” Aquatic Botany Volume 65, Issues 1–4, November 1999, Pages 159–174.
  • Green, E.P. & Short, F.T.(eds). 2003. World Atlas of Seagrasses. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. 298 pp.
  • Hemminga, M.A. & Duarte, C. 2000. Seagrass Ecology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 298 pp.
  • Hogarth, Peter The Biology of Mangroves and Seagrasses (Oxford University Press, 2007)
  • Larkum, Anthony W.D., Robert J. Orth, and Carlos M. Duarte (Editors) Seagrasses: Biology, Ecology and Conservation (Springer, 2006)
  • Orth, Robert J. et al. "A Global Crisis for Seagrass Ecosystems" BioScience December 2006 / Vol. 56 No. 12, Pages 987–996.
  • Short, F.T. & Coles, R.G.(eds). 2001. Global Seagrass Research Methods. Elsevier Science, Amsterdam. 473 pp.
  • A.W.D. Larkum, R.J. Orth, and C.M. Duarte (eds). Seagrass Biology: A Treatise. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, in press.
  • A. Schwartz; M. Morrison; I. Hawes; J. Halliday. 2006. Physical and biological characteristics of a rare marine habitat: sub-tidal seagrass beds of offshore islands. Science for Conservation 269. 39 pp. [1]
  • Waycott, M, McMahon, K, & Lavery, P 2014, A guide to southern temperate seagrasses, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne

External links

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