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Relationships between benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages and habitat types in nearshore marine and estuarine waters along the lower west coast of Australia

Wildsmith, Michelle (2007) Relationships between benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages and habitat types in nearshore marine and estuarine waters along the lower west coast of Australia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The following four broad aims were addressed in this study. (1) To ascertain whether the characteristics of the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages within the different nearshore marine habitat types identified by Valesini et al. (2003) on the lower west coast of Australia differ significantly, and whether the pattern of those spatial differences matches those among the environmental characteristics that were used to distinguish those habitat types; (2) To develop a quantitative approach for classifying nearshore habitats in estuarine waters that employs readily-available data for a range of enduring environmental characteristics, and to use that approach to classify the various habitat types present in nearshore waters of the Swan-Canning Estuary on the lower west coast of Australia; (3) To test the hypothesis that the characteristics of the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages in the in the Swan-Canning Estuary differ significantly among nearshore habitat types, and that the pattern of those differences matches that among the environmental characteristics used to distinguish those habitat types and (4) To test the hypothesis that, as a result of environmental changes in the Swan-Canning Estuary, the characteristics of the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages at various habitats in this estuary in 1986/7 differ from those in 2003/4.

To address the first aim, benthic macroinvertebrates were sampled seasonally for one year in the subtidal waters and intertidal zone (upper and lower swash zones) at the six nearshore habitat types that were identified by Valesini et al. (2003) on the lower west coast of Australia. The habitat types, which differed mainly in the extent of their exposure to wave activity and whether seagrass and/or nearshore reefs were present, had been distinguished quantitatively using values for a suite of seven statistically-selected enduring environmental characteristics. The faunal samples yielded a total of 121 species representing eight phyla, among which the Polychaeta, Malacostraca and Bivalvia were the most speciose classes and contributed ~ 38, 23 and 10%, respectively, to the total number of individuals. The total number of species and mean density of macroinvertebrates was far greater at the most protected habitat type (1), which also contained dense beds of seagrass, than at any other habitat type, i.e. 70 species and 209.2 individuals 0.1 m-2, compared to 32 species and 36.9 individuals 0.1 m-2 at the most exposed habitat type (6), which had a substrate comprised only of sand. Differences among habitat type influenced the benthic macroinvertebrate species composition to a greater extent than differences among either zones or seasons. Significantly different faunal compositions were detected among those latter two factors only at the most protected habitat type. The faunal assemblage at habitat type 1 was clearly the most distinct from those at the other five habitat types, particularly in the subtidal zone (R-statistics=0.642-0.831, p=0.1%), and was typified by five abundant polychaete species that were adapted to deposit-feeding. In contrast, the fauna at habitat type 6 was typified by four crustacean species and a species of bivalve and polychaete, whose mobility and tough external surface facilitated their survival and feeding in those turbulent waters. The extents of the differences in species composition among the six habitat types was significantly matched with that among the suite of enduring environmental characteristics that distinguished those habitat types, particularly in the case of the subtidal zone (Rho=0.676). Such results indicated that the environmental variables used to distinguish the nearshore habitat types could be used to reliably predict the types of benthic macroinvertebrate species likely to occur at any site along the lower west coast of Australia.

The above biological validation of the nearshore marine habitat classification scheme developed by Valesini et al. (2003) provided the justification for the approach to the second broad aim of this study, namely to develop a quantitative scheme for classifying habitat types in the Swan-Canning Estuary. This approach was similar to that employed by Valesini et al. (2003) in that it considers that differences among habitat types are well reflected by differences in a suite of enduring environmental variables. However, it improves on that earlier method by employing a completely objective and quantitative approach.

Thus, a large number of environmentally-diverse nearshore sites (102) were initially selected throughout the Swan-Canning Estuary and a suite of 13 enduring environmental variables quantified at each using remotely-sensed images of the estuary in a Geographic Information System. Such variables were chosen to reflect either (i) the type of substrate and submerged vegetation present, (ii) the extent of exposure to wave action or (iii) the location of the site within the estuary with respect to its vicinity to marine and fresh water sources. These data were then subjected to the CLUSTER routine and associated SIMPROF procedure in the PRIMER v6 multivariate statistical package to quantitatively identify those groups of sites that did not differ significantly in their environmental characteristics, and thus represented habitat types. Eighteen habitat types were identified, which were shown to well reflect spatial differences in a suite of non-enduring water quality and sediment characteristics that were measured in situ at a range of estuarine sites during both summer and winter in 2005 (Rho=0.683 and 0.740, respectively, p=0.1%). However, those latter environmental characteristics required far more time in the field and laboratory to quantify than the enduring variables used to identify the habitat types.

Benthic macroinvertebrates were sampled during summer and winter in 2005 in the shallow subtidal regions (~1 m depth) at sites representing eight of the habitat types identified in the Swan-Canning Estuary. These samples contained a total of 51 and 36 species during summer and winter, respectively, and, in both seasons, represented nine phyla, namely Annelida, Crustacea, Mollusca, Sipuncula, Nematoda, Platyhelminthes, Cnidaria, Uniramia and Nemertea. The compositions of the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages differed significantly among habitat types and, to a similar extent, between seasons (Global R-statistic=0.408 and 0.409, respectively, p=0.1%). However, the spatial differences were considerable greater in winter than in summer (Global R-statistic=0.536 vs 0.280, p=0.1%), presumably due to the greater spatial variation in particular non-enduring in situ environmental characteristics, such as redox depth and salinity. While the number of species, overall density and taxonomic distinctness of benthic macroinvertebrates also differed significantly among habitats, those variables differed to a greater extent between seasons, being greater in winter than in summer. While the measures of taxonomic distinctness tended to be greater at habitat types located in the lower to middle reaches, i.e. habitat types 6, 7, 9, 10, 13 and 18, than the upper reaches i.e. habitat types 1 and 3, the number of species and overall density reflected this trend only during winter. During summer, the mean numbers of species at habitat types 1, 3, 6 and 10 (3.4-6.0) were significantly lower than those at habitat types 7, 13, and 18 (8.8-10.9), whereas the overall density of benthic macroinvertebrates was far greater at habitat type 7 (32260 individuals 0.1 m-2)than at any other habitat type in this season (3135-18552 individuals 0.1 m-2).

Overall, the greatest differences in assemblage composition occurred between those at habitat types 1 and 18 (R-statistic=0.669, p=0.1%), which were located in the uppermost region of the estuary and the lower reaches of the basin, respectively, and differed to the greatest extent in their enduring environmental characteristics. The assemblage at habitat type 1, and also that at habitat type 3, located just downstream, were relatively distinct from those at all other habitat types, particularly during winter (R-statistics=0.666-0.993, p=0.1%). The fauna at the first of these habitat types was relatively depauperate, containing low numbers of species and densities, and was characterised by the polychaetes Leitoscoloplos normalis and Ceratonereis aequisetis and the bivalve Arthritica semen. The assemblage at habitat type 3 was also characterised by those three species and the amphipod Paracorophium minor and the polychaete Boccardiella limnicola. In contrast, the assemblage at habitat type 18 was characterised by a more diverse assemblage, i.e. the polychaetes Capitella capitata, C. aequisetis, L. normalis and Pseudopolydora kempi, the amphipods, Grandidierella propodentata and Corophium minor and the bivalve Sanguinolaria biradiata. The number of species was among the highest at this habitat type during both seasons, which was also reflected in the high taxonomic diversity, and the overall density was the highest in winter and second highest in summer. Despite the above faunal differences, those between assemblages at habitat types 7 and 9, which were both located in the basin of the Swan-Canning Estuary, were similar in magnitude to those that occurred between pairs of habitat types located in two different regions of the estuary. Although both habitat types 7 and 9 were characterised by a similar suite of species, i.e. Oligochaete spp., C. aequisetis, C. capitata, C. minor, G. propodentata, L. normalis, and S. biradiata, the substantial differences in assemblage composition between these habitat types in both summer and winter (R-statistics=0.570 and 0.725, respectively) was due to marked differences in the relative contributions of each of these species.

Significant and strong correlations were shown to exist in both summer and winter between the pattern of differences in the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages among habitat types and that among the enduring environmental characteristics used to identify those habitat types (Rho=0.625 and 0.825, respectively, p=0.1%). Furthermore, these correlations were greater than those obtained between the benthic macroinvertebrate fauna and any combination of the non-enduring environmental characteristics (i.e. water quality and sediment parameters) recorded in situ at each habitat type (Rho=0.508 and 0.824, in summer and winter, respectively, p=o.1%). This demonstrates the greater capacity of surrogate enduring environmental characteristics to account for differences in the range of variables that may influence the distribution of benthic invertebrate fauna. Thus, the lists of characteristic benthic macroinvertebrate taxa produced for each of the eight habitat types studied in the Swan-Canning Estuary provide a reliable benchmark by which to gauge any future changes in those fauna. Moreover, these results indicate that the above habitat classification scheme can be used to reliably predict the types of benthic macroinvertebrate fauna that are likely to occur at any nearshore site of interest in this estuarine system.

The final component of this study showed that the benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages at four sites in the middle reaches of the Swan-Canning Estuary in 2003/4 differed significantly from those recorded at the same sites in 1986/7. Such differences were reflected in (1) changes in the relative densities of a suite of ten species that were responsible for distinguishing the faunas in these two periods, (2) the absence of 22 rare species in 2003/4 (i.e. 42% of the number of species recorded in 1986/7), (3) the presence of 17 new species in 2003/4, including an abundant polychaete that is likely to have been introduced and (4) a far greater extent of seasonal variation in the number of species and densities of benthic macroinvertebrates in 2003/4. Such changes are likely to be related to lower sediment oxygen levels in certain seasons in 2003/4, as well as an altered hydrological regime due to increased temperatures and decreased rainfall in that more recent period. The fact that these changes have occurred within the Swan-Canning Estuary highlights the need for effective management tools, such as the habitat classification scheme and associated faunal survey undertaken in this study. Such data will provide a sound basis by which to examine the ways in which fauna vary spatially within the system, and allow for the establishment of comprehensive benchmarks for detecting future changes.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology
Supervisor(s): Valesini, Fiona
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