Benthic synecology in a soft sediment shelf: Habitat contrasts and assembly rules of life strategies

Beauchard, Olivier; Mestdagh, Sebastiaan; Koop, Leo; Ysebaert, Tom; Herman, Peter M.J.


Biological traits of benthic macroinvertebrates from a large area of the North Sea soft sediments were used to explore habitat occupancy within seascapes of contrasting hydrodynamics. The area, the Dutch sector of the North Sea, is mainly composed of 2 habitats: shallow dynamic bottoms of heterogeneous geomorphologies and deep homogeneous muddy bottoms. Higher within-habitat heterogeneity was hypothesized to more specifically select benthic life strategies according to environmental filtering, i.e. through the action of abiotic forces. Functional community patterns were explored through the RLQ method, which relates habitat and trait variables, at different spatial scales of specific seascape heterogeneity, and functional diversity indices were used to shed light on community assembly mechanisms. Locally, 3 associations between habitat characteristics and biological traits were shown to correspond with predictions of life history theories, whereas only 2 emerged when considering all types of seascapes. This spatial scaledependence was explained by abiotic alternations masked over the larger scale at which all the existing strategies could not be properly disentangled. The relative composition in strategies obeyed specific assembly rules as identified by functional diversity indices. Seascape geomorphology was locally discriminant of functional patterns, and could account for biodiversification, much beyond basic taxonomic counts. Whereas habitats of higher physical stability hosted the taxonomically richest communities, stress or disturbance frequency increased functional variations within communities due to different strategist habitat occupancies. This study proposes a generic mechanism of benthic community structuring in soft sediment shelves.