Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 41, Issue 6, pp 1525–1538 | Cite as

Historical Trends of Benthic Invertebrate Biodiversity Spanning 182 Years in a Southern New England Estuary

  • Stephen S. HaleEmail author
  • Melissa M. Hughes
  • Henry W. Buffum


Benthic invertebrates support numerous ecosystem functions and services including shellfish production, energy flow to fishes, and biogeochemical cycles. The decline of marine biodiversity worldwide has raised concerns about effects on ecosystems. To examine biodiversity trends of Narragansett Bay over time, a list was compiled of all benthic invertebrate species collected from the bay since 1834. The list covers 104 studies spanning 182 years and currently holds 1214 unique taxa from 21 phyla, the majority of all animal phyla on Earth. A permuted estimator of number of species suggested there are about 300 more yet to be discovered. Widely varying sampling gear and sieve mesh sizes precluded the use of abundance data. Instead, multidimensional scaling and taxonomic distinctness were used with presence-absence data to examine biodiversity trends. The changes in community composition and decline of benthic biodiversity (p < 0.01) since 1855 are what would be expected of a community that gradually deteriorated in the face of increasing anthropogenic stressors. Taxonomic distinctness had negative correlations (p < 0.05) with human population in the watershed, total nitrogen inputs, and inputs of metals. This loss of benthic biodiversity has implications for ecosystem functions and services. As some of the stressors waned in the last two or three decades, following passage of environmental legislation in the 1970s, biodiversity appeared to show a partial recovery. An inventory of species, how it has changed over time, and understanding what caused those changes are important for assessing whether remediation programs are achieving improved water quality and ecosystem health.


Marine benthic invertebrates Biodiversity Taxonomic distinctness Historical trends Narragansett Bay 



We are grateful to Sheldon Pratt of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island (GSO-URI) who over many years has been an unparalleled fount of data and information on the Narragansett Bay benthos. Eric Lazo-Wasem and Lourdes Rojas at the Yale-Peabody Museum of Natural History, Patrick Randall at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and William Moser at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History provided expert assistance with the historical data and access to their online databases was invaluable. Katherinne Duffy and Steven Lubar of Brown University provided information on the “Lost Museum.” The availability of historical books and reports from the Biodiversity Heritage Library was essential to our task. We are grateful for the assistance of Joyce Downey at Pell Marine Science Library, Hope Lappen at Brown University Library, David Remsen at Marine Biological Laboratory-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Library, and Dale Sheehy at the USEPA Atlantic Ecology Division library. We thank Deborah French McCay and Melanie Schroeder of Applied Science Associates, Inc. for providing the Mount Hope Bay data from MRI and the Weaver Cove LNG project. Also thanks to Candace Oviatt (GSO-URI) for providing the Marine Ecosystems Research Laboratory data and to Jeremy Collie (GSO-URI) for making available the invertebrate data from the bottom trawl time series. Review comments by Jeff Frithsen, Niels Hobbs, Anne Kuhn, and two anonymous reviewers improved the manuscript. This is contribution number ORD-023968 of the US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Atlantic Ecology Division, Narragansett, RI.

Funding Information

The research described in this article has been funded wholly or in part by the US Environmental Protection Agency.


This article has not been subjected to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and does not necessarily reflect the views of the agency. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute endorsement or recommendation for use.

Supplementary material

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ESM 1 (PDF 392 kb)


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© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (outside the USA) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Atlantic Ecology Division, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Office of Research and DevelopmentU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyNarragansettUSA
  2. 2.CSRA, U.S. Environmental Protection AgencyNarragansettUSA

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