Seagrasses are flowering plants from one of four plant families (Posidoniaceae, Zosteraceae, Hydrocharitaceae, or Cymodoceaceae), all in the order Alismatales (in the class of monocotyledons), which grow in marine, fully-saline environments.
These unusual marine flowering plants are called seagrasses because the leaves are long and narrow and are very often green, and because the plants often grow in large "meadows" which look like grassland: in other words many of the species of seagrasses superficially resemble terrestrial grasses of the family Poaceae.
Because these plants must photosynthesize, they are limited to growing submerged in the photic zone, and most occur in shallow and sheltered coastal waters anchored in sand or mud bottoms. They undergo pollination while submerged and complete their entire life cycle underwater. There are about sixty species worldwide (although the taxonomy is still disputed).
Seagrasses form extensive beds or meadows, which can be either monospecific (made up of one species) or multispecific (where more than one species co-exist). 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 highly 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 a highly important link in the food chain, with hundreds of species feeding on seagrasses worldwide, including green turtles, dugongs, manatees, fish, geese, swans, sea urchins and crabs.
Seagrasses are sometimes labeled ecosystem engineers, because they partly create their own habitat: the leaves slow down water-currents increasing sedimentation, and the seagrass roots and rhizomes stabilize the seabed. Their importance for associated species is mainly due to provision of shelter (through their three-dimensional structure in the water column), and for their extraordinarily high rate of primary production. As a result, seagrasses provide coastal zones with a number of ecosystem goods and ecosystem services, for instance fishing grounds, wave protection, oxygen production and protection against coastal erosion.
Sea-grass meadows account for 15% of the ocean’s total carbon storage. The ocean currently absorbs 25% of global carbon emissions.
Lately seagrass has been used in furniture, and woven like rattan.
Natural disturbances such as grazing, storms, ice-scouring, and desiccation are an inherent part of seagrass ecosystem dynamics. Seagrasses display an extraordinarily high degree of phenotypic plasticity, adapting rapidly to changing environmental conditions.
Seagrasses are in global decline, with some 30,000 square kilometres (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.