The Conundrum of Biont-Free Substrates On a High-Energy Continental Shelf: Burial and Scour on Nantucket Shoals, Great South Channel

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Ocean Science and Engineering


A survey of the adjacent waters east of Nantucket, Massachusetts provided an opportunity to evaluate the epibiota attached to cobbles, rocks, boulders, and Atlantic surfclam shell in a region of high tidal current velocity and sand scour where burial, exhumation, and scour may limit epibiont coverage on exposed, and thus otherwise highly preferred for attachment, substrates. Such conditions may confute the expectation that substrate complexity always adds significantly to ecosystem value by expanding the range of habitat options and consequently increasing species richness and trophic linkages. Sedimentary particles potentially providing good attachment substrate for erect sessile epibiota included surfclam shells, abundant at many locations, cobbles, nearly ubiquitous, rocks, routinely encountered, and occasional boulders. The attached epibiota fell into three categories based on their biases for particle types. Some preferred the largest particles or evidence of their occupation was best preserved on these particles: these included sponges, mussels, and barnacles and their scars. Some preferred intermediate and smaller terrigenous particles; these included tunicates and encrusting bryozoans. Some preferred surfclam shells, namely the slipper shells and erect hydroids. Slow-growing attached epibionts were exceedingly rare and all soft-bodied attached epibionts were rare. Only barnacles and their taphonomic scars and hydroids were common. The frequency of barnacle scars relative to intact barnacles suggests sediment scour under a high-flow regime. Mussels were rarely attached to larger sedimentary particles such as cobbles and rocks, though commonly occurring locally as mussel beds on sand and pebble, further supporting the ephemerality of exposed unscoured attachment sites. The absence of attached epibionts demonstrates that edaphic processes minimize the importance of cobbles, rocks, boulders, and shells in community structure in some subtidal high-energy regimes, defying expectations from their contribution to substrate complexity. Their apparent contribution to habitat complexity belies their resultant much more minor role in determining community composition, thereby limiting their ecosystem value.

Publication Title

Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science



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