Few macrobenthic studies have dealt simultaneously with the two major gradients in estuarine benthic habitats: the salinity gradient along the estuary (longitudinal) and the gradients from high intertidal to deep subtidal sites (vertical gradient). In this broad-scale study, a large data set (3112 samples) of the Schelde estuary allowed a thorough analysis of these gradients, and to relate macrobenthic species distributions and community structure to salinity, depth, current velocities and sediment characteristics. Univariate analyses clearly revealed distinct gradients in diversity, abundance, and biomass along the vertical and longitudinal gradients. In general, highest diversity and biomass were observed in the intertidal, polyhaline zone and decreased with decreasing salinity. Abundance did not show clear trends and varied between spring and autumn. In all regions, very low values for all measures were observed in the subtidal depth strata. Abundance in all regions was dominated by both surface deposit feeders and sub-surface deposit feeders. In contrast, the biomass of the different feeding guilds showed clear gradients in the intertidal zone. Suspension feeders dominated in the polyhaline zone and showed a significant decrease with decreasing salinity. Surface deposit feeders and sub-surface deposit feeders showed significantly higher biomass values in the polyhaline zone as compared with the mesohaline zone. Omnivores showed an Multivariate analyses showed a strong relationship between the macrobenthic assemblages and the predominant environmental gradients in the Schelde estuary. The most important environmental factor was depth, which reflected also the hydrodynamic conditions (current velocities). A second gradient was related to salinity and confirms the observations from the univariate analyses. Additionally, sediment characteristics (mud content) explained a significant part of the macrobenthic community structur The results showed that at a large, estuarine scale a considerable fraction of the variation in abundance and biomass of the benthic macrofauna correlated very well with environmental factors (depth, salinity, tidal current velocity, sediment composition) [KEYWORDS: benthic macrofauna; estuarine habitats; environmental gradients; salinity; depth; canonical correspondence analysis; variation partitioning; suspension and deposit feeders; Schelde estuary]
Original languageEnglish
JournalEstuarine Coastal and Shelf Science
Journal publication date2003

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