Populations of marine benthic organisms occupy habitats with a range of physical and biological characteristics. In the intertidal zone, energetic costs increase with temperature and aerial exposure, and prey intake increases with immersion time, generating size gradients with small individuals often found at upper limits of distribution. Wave action can have similar effects, limiting feeding time or success, although certain species benefit from wave dislodgment of their prey; this also results in gradients of size and morphology. The difference between energy intake and metabolic (and/or behavioral) costs can be used to determine an energetic optimal size for individuals in such populations. Comparisons of the energetic optimal size to the maximum predicted size based on mechanical constraints, and the ensuing mortality schedule, provides a mechanism to study and explain organism size gradients in intertidal and subtidal habitats. For species where the energetic optimal size is well below the maximum size that could persist under a certain set of wave/flow conditions, it is probable that energetic constraints dominate. When the opposite is true, populations of small individuals can dominate habitats with strong dislodgment or damage probability. When the maximum size of individuals is far below either energetic optima or mechanical limits, other sources of mortality (e.g., predation) may favor energy allocation to early reproduction rather than to continued growth. Predictions based on optimal size models have been tested for a variety of intertidal and subtidal invertebrates including sea anemones, corals, and octocorals. This paper provides a review of the optimal size concept, and employs a combination of the optimal energetic size model and life history modeling approach to explore energy allocation to growth or reproduction as the optimal size is approached.
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