Foraging Ecology of Megaherbivores and Seagrass Distribution in Al-Wajh Lagoon



Seagrass meadows are a crucial foraging habitat for marine megaherbivores. The Red Sea hosts two megaherbivore species, the green turtle Chelonia mydas and the dugong Dugong dugon, along with twelve seagrass species. Seagrass habitats in the Saudi Arabian coast of the Red Sea are currently under pressure from large scale coastal developments. I used multiple methods to assess seagrass and megaherbivore densities in Al-Wajh lagoon, a unique semi-enclosed bay on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea that is currently targeted for development. Seagrasses were assessed using quadrat surveys while megaherbivores censuses were conducted by both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and boat-based observers. Both seagrass and sea turtles were patchily distributed throughout the bay. Dugongs were never encountered during surveys but feeding trails and off-effort encounters suggest at least occasional use of the area. While there were some qualitative patterns between seagrass composition and feeding trail/sea turtle abundance, there was not enough data to achieve statistical significance. The UAV generally outperformed boat-based surveys, but the inability of the drone to distinguish turtles through dense seagrass coverage is a methodological limitation that should be overcome by using hyperspectral cameras in future work. Overall, my results highlight the importance of ground truthing habitat maps, reveal interesting questions for additional study, and provide some direction for future research and conservation efforts within Al-Wajh Lagoon.
Date made available2022
PublisherKAUST Research Repository

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