Examination of Ulva Bloom Species Richness and Relative Abundance Reveals Two Cryptically Co-Occurring Bloom Species in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island

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Blooms caused by the green macroalga Ulva pose a serious threat to coastal ecosystems around the world. Despite numerous studies of the causes and consequences of these blooms, we still have a limited understanding of Ulva bloom species richness and abundance due to difficulties in identifying Ulva species using morphological features. Along the northeastern U.S. coastline, all blooms of distromatic Ulva blades were previously identified as Ulva lactuca. Recent molecular sequencing, however, discovered the presence of additional distromatic Ulva species. Therefore, in order to determine the relative abundance of Ulva species within blooms, we conducted monthly surveys at four Narragansett Bay, RI, sites representing a gradient of bloom severity. We found that the biomass of Ulva within blooms was a mix of Ulva compressa and Ulva rigida, not U. lactuca as previously reported. In contrast, sites not impacted by blooms that were located near the mouth of Narragansett Bay were dominated by U. lactuca. We also observed spatial and temporal differences in Ulva and total macroalgal diversity between bloom-impacted sites, indicating that Ulva bloom composition can be radically different between similar sites within close proximity. We discuss our results in the context of Ulva blooms worldwide, highlighting the need to definitively determine bloom species composition in order to fully understand bloom dynamics.