Benthic community structure and sediment processes on an intertidal flat: results from the ECOFLAT project

P.M.J. Herman, J.J. Middelburg, C.H.R. Heip

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    Interactions between physical and biological processes in intertidal sediments have been the focus of studies in the framework of the ECOFLAT project. Process studies were focused on the Molenplaat, a 1.5 km(2) intertidal flat in the Westerschelde estuary, The Netherlands. Distinct spatial patterns in the biological community on the flat were found and related to patterns in bottom shear stress as derived from a hydrodynamic model. Based on these survey results five stations were selected with contrasting sediment composition and benthic communities. Long-term net sedimentation of mainly sand was deduced from radionuclide profiles. Sedimentation of mud on the surface of part of the intertidal flat was shown to be a seasonally cyclic process, with a magnitude sufficient to significantly affect the mud balance of the estuary. Measurements of erodability as a function of tidal current showed a biological control on this variable. Benthic microalgae stabilise the sediment surface, whereas the benthic macrofauna has a destabilising effect. Food web studies show that the contrasting biological communities (microbenthos, meiobenthos, macrobenthos) at muddy and sandy sites have substantial differences in the quantitative aspects of their food web. Turnover of microalgae is much lower at muddy than at sandy sites, and this is mostly related to a lower grazing pressure. It is hypothesised that high mud content decreases the availability of benthic microalgae to grazers. We demonstrate a positive feedback between benthic microalgae and mud sedimentation which may lead to the existence of different stable states. This may explain the existence of relatively sharp boundaries and strong community contrasts in the presence of weak and smooth environmental gradients. [KEYWORDS: Tidal flat; westerschelde-estuary; ecosystem engineers arenicola -marina; microphytobenthos; netherlands; stability phytoplankton; macrobenthos; organisms]
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2055-2071
    JournalContinental Shelf Research
    Issue number18-19
    Publication statusPublished - 2001


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