Indefatigable: An erect coralline alga is highly resistant to fatigue

Mark Denny, Katharine Mach, Sarah Tepler, Patrick Martone

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Intertidal organisms are subjected to intense hydrodynamic forces as waves break on the shore. These repeated insults can cause a plant or animal's structural materials to fatigue and fail, even though no single force would be sufficient to break the organism. Indeed, the survivorship and maximum size of at least one species of seaweed is set by the accumulated effects of small forces rather than the catastrophic imposition of a single lethal force. One might suppose that fatigue would be especially potent in articulated coralline algae, in which the strain of the entire structure is concentrated in localized joints, the genicula. However, previous studies of joint morphology suggest an alternative hypothesis. Each geniculum is composed of a single tier of cells, which are attached at their ends to the calcified segments of the plant (the intergenicula) but have minimal connection to each other along their lengths. This lack of neighborly attachment potentially allows the weak interfaces between cells to act as 'crack stoppers', inhibiting the growth of fatigue cracks. We tested this possibility by repeatedly loading fronds of Calliarthron cheilosporioides, a coralline alga common on wave-washed shores in California. When repeatedly loaded to 50-80% of its breaking strength, C. cheilosporioides commonly survives more than a million stress cycles, with a record of 51 million. We show how this extraordinary fatigue resistance interacts with the distribution of wave-induced water velocities to set the limits to size in this species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3772-3780
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Calliarthron cheilosporioides
  • Fatigue failure
  • Hydrodynamic forces
  • Intertidal ecology
  • Size limits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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