Macroepibenthic communities at the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, an ecological survey at different spatial scales
The Southern Ocean ecosystem at the Antarctic Peninsula has steep natural environmental gradients, e.g. in terms of water masses and ice cover, and experiences regional above global average climate change. An ecological macroepibenthic survey was conducted in three ecoregions in the north-western Weddell Sea, on the continental shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Bransfield Strait and on the shelf of the South Shetland Islands in the Drake Passage, defined by their environmental envelop. The aim was to improve the so far poor knowledge of the structure of this component of the Southern Ocean ecosystem and its ecological driving forces. It can also provide a baseline to assess the impact of ongoing climate change to the benthic diversity, functioning and ecosystem services. Different intermediate-scaled topographic features such as canyon systems including the corresponding topographically defined habitats ‘bank’, ‘upper slope’, ‘slope’ and ‘canyon/deep’ were sampled. In addition, the physical and biological environmental factors such as sea-ice cover, chlorophyll-a concentration, small-scale bottom topography and water masses were analysed. Catches by Agassiz trawl showed high among-station variability in biomass of 96 higher systematic groups including ecological key taxa. Large-scale patterns separating the three ecoregions from each other could be correlated with the two environmental factors, sea-ice and depth. Attribution to habitats only poorly explained benthic composition, and small-scale bottom topography did not explain such patterns at all. The large-scale factors, sea-ice and depth, might have caused large-scale differences in pelagic benthic coupling, whilst small-scale variability, also affecting larger scales, seemed to be predominantly driven by unknown physical drivers or biological interactions.