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The influence of seep habitats on sediment macrofaunal biodiversity and functional traits

November 16, 2018

Chemosynthetic ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) support dense communities of seep megafaunal invertebrates that rely on endosymbiotic bacteria for nutrition. Distinct infaunal communities are associated with the biogenic habitats created by seep biota, where habitat heterogeneity and sediment geochemistry influence local macrofaunal community structure. Here we examine the community structure and function of seep infaunal communities in the GOM in relation to environmental drivers and estimated proximity to seeps. We modeled seep distribution within 3 major seep fields (AC601, GC852, and AT340), and examined the influence of proximity to seep and associated sediment environment on infaunal community structure and function. To model seep habitat distribution, we used known seep occurrence data from ROV and towed camera images, terrain variables derived from high resolution multibeam bathymetry (gridded to 3 m resolution), and a maximum entropy (Maxent) approach. Model performance was high, with mean area under the curve for each habitat ranging from 0.851 for mussel to 0.908 for tubeworm habitat, with the models highly influenced by terrain rugosity. Replicate sediment cores were collected from the three sites in 2007 and processed for macrofauna and environmental characteristics. A majority of the taxa (86%) occurred within 16 m of modeled seep habitat and increased distance from modeled seeps was generally associated with lower calculated seep index coupled with decreased macrofaunal densities. Distance-based linear regression indicated that patterns in macrofaunal communities were driven by proximity to modeled seep habitat and profile curvature, a metric for the shape of the maximum slope. Similarly, variance in infaunal functional traits was best explained by proximity to seep, but also sediment C:N, reflecting the relative influence of sediment chemistry, including organic content, on infaunal communities. Results suggest that northern GOM seep infaunal community assemblages and their function are structured by factors that influence food availability and habitat heterogeneity. Given the abundance of seeps in the GOM and in the world’s oceans, this study supports the premise that the sphere of influence of seeps is spatially extensive.