Marine invertebrate larvae love plastics: Habitat selection and settlement on artificial substrates
Global urbanization and plastic pollution has increased the availability and variety of substrates for sessile organisms, and are intensively used by invasive species for settlement. Despite extensive literature describing the strong association between artificial structures and invasive species, little effort has been directed towards identifying the larval traits that favor this selection. Larval selection and settlement are crucial as larvae actively search and interpret environmental cues to identify suitable habitats to settle. The aim of this research was to investigate if invertebrate larvae have a preference for a particular anthropogenic substrate, and how pre-settlement behaviors vary when encountering different substrates. We used two invasive bryozoan species, Bugula flabellata and Bugula neritina, which are commonly found in urbanized areas around the world. Energy expenditure during planktonic and benthonic stages, pre-settlement swimming/exploring behaviors, settlement and larval selectivity were quantified under laboratory conditions on different substrates (concrete, wood, polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene terephthalate and polycarbonate). The energy expenditure measured was higher in planktonic larvae than in early settled larvae. Larvae of both species swam less and explored more when exposed to plastic surfaces, suggesting a preference for this substrate and resulting in lower energy expenditures associated with searching for habitat. Larvae actively chose to settle on plastics rather than on wood or concrete substrates. The results suggest that for Bugula larvae, the likelihood of colonizing plastic surfaces is higher than other materials commonly found in urbanized coastal areas. The more quickly they adhere to artificial substrates the lower the energy expenditure, contributing to higher fitness in these individuals. The strong preference of invertebrate larvae for plastics can potentially extend the distribution range of many invasive marine species as they are able to travel long distances attached to floating debris. This phenomenon will likely exacerbate the introduction of exotic species into novel habitats.