, Volume 9, Issue 6, pp 1029-1040

First online:

Functional Role of Large Organisms in Intertidal Communities: Community Effects and Ecosystem Function

  • Simon F. ThrushAffiliated withNational Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Email author 
  • , Judi E. HewittAffiliated withNational Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research
  • , Max GibbsAffiliated withNational Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research
  • , Carolyn LundquistAffiliated withNational Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research
  • , Alf NorkkoAffiliated withNational Institute of Water and Atmospheric ResearchDepartment of Biological Oceanography, Finnish Institute of Marine Research

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In marine soft sediments, large organisms are potentially important players in the nonlinear interactions that occur among animals, their food, and their chemical environment, all of which influence the contribution of benthos to ecosystem function. We investigated the consequences of removing large individuals of two functionally contrasting benthic communities on nutrient regeneration, microphyte standing stock, and macrobenthic community composition. The experiment was conducted at two adjacent sites that were physically similar but biologically different, one dominated by large deposit feeders and the other by large suspension feeders. Chemical fluxes were measured in experimental plots, and sediments were sampled to assess changes in macrofauna, sediment grain size, organic content, and microphyte standing stock. Our results demonstrate that the removal of large suspension feeders or deposit feeders influenced the flux of nitrogen and oxygen, surficial sediment characteristics, and community composition. In the deposit-feeder community, interactions between nutrient regeneration and grazing highlight important feedbacks between large macrofauna and biogeochemical processes and production by microphytes, indicating that the loss of large infauna driven by increased rates of anthropogenic disturbance may lead to functional extinction and cause shifts in community structure and ecosystem performance.


ecosystem function biogeochemistry microphytes benthic communities soft sediments intertidal sandflats New Zealand