, Volume 25, Issue 6, pp 1219-1230

First online:

An estuarine benthic index of biotic integrity for the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. I. Classification of assemblages and habitat definition

  • Roberto J. LlansóAffiliated withVersar, Inc. Email author 
  • , Lisa C. ScottAffiliated withVersar, Inc.
  • , Daniel M. DauerAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Old Dominion University
  • , Jeffrey L. HylandAffiliated withNational Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • , David E. RussellAffiliated withEnvironmental Science Center, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region III

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An objective of the Mid-Atlantic Integrated Assessment Program (MAIA) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is to develop an index for assessing benthic community condition in estuaries of the mid-Atlantic region of the United States (Delaware Bay through Pamlico Sound). To develop such an index, natural unimpaired communities must first be identified and variability related to natural factors accounted for. This study focused on these two objectives; Lnansó et al. (2002) describe the index. Using existing data sets from multiple years, classification analyses of species abundance and discriminant analysis were employed to identify major habitat types in the MAIA region and evaluate the physical characteristics that structure benthic infaunal assemblages. Sampling was restricted to soft bottoms and to the index development period, July through early October. The analyses revealed salinity and sediment composition as major factors structuring infaunal assemblages in mid-Atlantic estuaries. Geographical location was a secondary factor. Nine habitat classes were distinguished as a combination of 6 salinity classes, 2 sediment types, and the separation of North Carolina and Delaware-Chesapeake Bay polyhaline sites. The effect of sediment types on faunal assemblages was restricted to polyhaline sites, which were separated into two sediment groups above and below 90% sand content. Assemblages corresponding to each of these 9 habitats were identified in the context of widely recognized patterns of dominant taxa. Differences between North Carolina and Delaware-Chesapeake Bay polyhaline assemblages were attributed to the relative contributions of species and not to differences in species composition. No zoogeographic discontinuities could be identified. Our results reinforce the findings of recent studies which suggest that, with respect to estuarine benthic assemblages, the boundary between the Virginian and the Carolinian Provinces be moved to a new location south of Pamlico Sound.