Complex and inconsistent patterns of variation in benthos, micro-algae and sediment over multiple spatial scales

M. G. Chapman, T. J. Tolhurst, R. J. Murphy, A. J. Underwood

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Because of their close physical relationship, it is often assumed that there are strong functional relationships between sediments and biota. Yet, there have been few studies of the characteristics of sediments over multiple spatial scales, despite evidence that micro-algae and macroand meiofauna vary greatly at cm to km scales. This study quantified variability in macrofauna, micro-algae, and physical and biochemical properties of sediments over scales from 50 cm to km. The benthos was most variable at small scales and, even where there were large mean differences in abundance at large scales, these were small compared to the variation from plot to plot along a shore. Only 1 of 24 analyses showed larger variation at the scale of km than that found at 50 cm. Some measures of microphytobenthos showed large variation at the scale of 100s m or more, but other measures of the same flora did not show similar patterns. Concentrations of sand were consistent at different depths and at large scales, but concentrations of mud were more variable within than among shores. Neither sand nor mud correlated significantly with most biochemical properties of sediments. For sediments, variation at the scale of km was only larger than that of 50 cm in 13 of 57 analyses. To understand the relative importance of ecological processes in determining distributions and abundances, it is important to get quantitative data on the scales at which organisms or habitats vary. These are the scales at which ecological processes are likely to have large effects because large-scale processes are unlikely to explain variation at much smaller scales. The importance of small-scale variability in sediments and the associated biota is discussed in terms of sampling protocols for understanding ecological processes, or for assessing impact or restoration.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-47
Number of pages15
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
Publication statusPublished - 2010

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