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Natural disturbance shapes benthic intertidal macroinvertebrate communities of high latitude river deltas

June 13, 2016

Unlike lower latitude coastlines, the estuarine nearshore zones of the Alaskan Beaufort Sea are icebound and frozen up to 9 months annually. This annual freezing event represents a dramatic physical disturbance to fauna living within intertidal sediments. The main objectives of this study were to describe the benthic communities of Beaufort Sea deltas, including temporal changes and trophic structure. Understanding benthic invertebrate communities provided a baseline for concurrent research on shorebird foraging ecology at these sites. We found that despite continuous year-to-year episodes of annual freezing, these estuarine deltas are populated by a range of invertebrates that represent both marine and freshwater assemblages. Freshwater organisms like Diptera and Oligochaeta not only survive this extreme event, but a marine invasion of infaunal organisms such as Amphipoda and Polychaeta rapidly recolonizes the delta mudflats following ice ablation. These delta sediments of sand, silt, and clay are fine in structure compared to sediments of other Beaufort Sea coastal intertidal habitats. The relatively depauperate invertebrate community that ultimately develops is composed of marine and freshwater benthic invertebrates. The composition of the infauna also reflects two strategies that make life on Beaufort Sea deltas possible: a migration of marine organisms from deeper lagoons to the intertidal and freshwater biota that survive the 9-month ice-covered period in frozen sediments. Stable isotopic analyses reveal that both infaunal assemblages assimilate marine and terrestrial sources of organic carbon. These results provide some of the first quantitative information on the infaunal food resources of shallow arctic estuarine systems and the long-term persistence of these invertebrate assemblages. Our data help explain the presence of large numbers of shorebirds in these habitats during the brief summer open-water period and their trophic importance to migrating waterfowl and nearshore populations of estuarine fishes that are the basis of subsistence lifestyles by native inhabitants of the Beaufort Sea coast.

Publication Year 2016
Title Natural disturbance shapes benthic intertidal macroinvertebrate communities of high latitude river deltas
DOI 10.1007/s12237-015-0028-2
Authors Roy T. Churchwell, Steve J. Kendall, Amy L. Blanchard, Kenneth H. Dunton, Abby N. Powell
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Estuaries and Coasts
Index ID 70173562
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle