Ecosystem engineers typically exert positive feedback on their environment, which enhances their performance. Such positive feedback is lacking in the establishment phase, when densities are too low and/or patches are too small. There is a strong need to unravel the mechanisms for overcoming the resulting
establishment thresholds, both for ecological restoration purposes and to be able to use their services. In the present study, we question whether providing a transient substratum can be used as tool to overcome establishment thresholds, by creating a window of opportunity for initial settlement, using mussels (Mytilus edulis) as a model system. Combining field and flume experiments, we study how biogenic substratum enrichment in the form of a shell layer on a soft mudflat affects the critical dislodgement thresholds and, thus, the chances of mussel establishment at different mussel densities and aggregation states. Flume results showed that the presence of a shell layer reduced dislodgement of mussel patches in low-energy environments but was conditional for establishment in high-energy environments. That is, in high-energy environments with shells, aggregation into clumps enhanced dislodgement, while dislodgement was reduced with increasing overall mussel biomass and overall mussel patch weight. Without shells, dislodgement was always 100%. These findings agreed with our field studies, which showed that coarse shell material reduced mussel losses (by a factor of 3), reduced aggregation (by a factor of 2.4), and increased attachment strength (by a factor of 2.4). Overall, our results show that the local presence of biogenic substratum increases the
chance of mussel establishment by enhancing the critical hydrodynamic dislodgement threshold. Thus, the local addition of a biogenic substratum may create a window of opportunity to initiate settlement in more
dynamic environments, to shift at a local scale from a bare mudflat state into an established biogenic reef state. Our findings have clear implications for how to approach restoration and management of ecosystem engineers dominated systems. For instance, when positive feedback of ecosystem engineers is lacking, (1) the transient offering of suitable settling substratum may be a necessary step to overcome establishment thresholds, and (2) this becomes increasingly important with increasing abiotic stress.