, Volume 49, Issue 1-4, pp 313-328

Benthic community structures in the North Sea

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Abstract

Coherent assemblages of marine benthic species have been recognized from the early twentieth century, and the classical papers of Petersen (1914, 1918) were based on studies of limited areas in the North Sea. In 1986, a synoptic survey of the North Sea north to 57°N was undertaken by a group of ten laboratories from seven North Sea countries. The results of this survey have recently been published (Heip et al., 1992a, b; Künitzer et al., 1992; Huys et al., 1992), and some of the results are summarized in this paper. The analysis of the macrofauna is based on slightly more than 700 taxa. In general, the North Sea macrofauna consists of northern species extending south to the northern margins of the Dogger Bank, and southern species extending north to the 100 m depth line. The central North Sea is an area of overlap of southern and northern species, especially around the 70 m depth contour. Consistent groupings of species are recognized that were summarized in seven faunal groupings. Macrofaunal body weight, density and diversity increase linearly towards the north. Macrofaunal biomass for the whole area averages 7 g adwt. m−2 and decreases from south to north. Distribution patterns and trends within the meiofauna were very different. Nematodes, which are the dominant taxon overall, are least abundant in the sandy sediments of the Southern Bight, then increase to a maximum around 53° 30′ N and slowly decrease again towards the north. Copepod density and diversity are highest in the Southern Bight, due to the presence of many interstitial species. A large number of species new to science were recorded by the North Sea Benthos Survey and about 1500 species are expected to occur. Copepods show very distinct assemblages according to water depth and sediment type. The contrasting patterns in latitudinal gradients of body weight and number of species of macro- and meiofauna can be only partially explained. Latitude and sediment characteristics, such as grain size and content in plant pigments, and water depth, determine part of the variance in species composition, density and biomass of the benthic fauna, but the patterns that are observed are different for different benthic groups, requiring careful consideration as to their use in biological monitoring procedures. Distributions are related to current patterns in the North Sea, annual temperature variations and availability of food. However, large parts of the variance in many parameters remain unexplained.