Natural patterns and anthropogenic disturbance in north Adriatic marine benthic assemblages: descriptive and methodological studies

Fontana, Giovanni (2009) Natural patterns and anthropogenic disturbance in north Adriatic marine benthic assemblages: descriptive and methodological studies, [Dissertation thesis], Alma Mater Studiorum Università di Bologna. Dottorato di ricerca in Scienze ambientali: tutela e gestione delle risorse naturali, 21 Ciclo.
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Marine soft bottom systems show a high variability across multiple spatial and temporal scales. Both natural and anthropogenic sources of disturbance act together in affecting benthic sedimentary characteristics and species distribution. The description of such spatial variability is required to understand the ecological processes behind them. However, in order to have a better estimate of spatial patterns, methods that take into account the complexity of the sedimentary system are required. This PhD thesis aims to give a significant contribution both in improving the methodological approaches to the study of biological variability in soft bottom habitats and in increasing the knowledge of the effect that different process (both natural and anthropogenic) could have on the benthic communities of a large area in the North Adriatic Sea. Beta diversity is a measure of the variability in species composition, and Whittaker’s index has become the most widely used measure of beta-diversity. However, application of the Whittaker index to soft bottom assemblages of the Adriatic Sea highlighted its sensitivity to rare species (species recorded in a single sample). This over-weighting of rare species induces biased estimates of the heterogeneity, thus it becomes difficult to compare assemblages containing a high proportion of rare species. In benthic communities, the unusual large number of rare species is frequently attributed to a combination of sampling errors and insufficient sampling effort. In order to reduce the influence of rare species on the measure of beta diversity, I have developed an alternative index based on simple probabilistic considerations. It turns out that this probability index is an ordinary Michaelis-Menten transformation of Whittaker's index but behaves more favourably when species heterogeneity increases. The suggested index therefore seems appropriate when comparing patterns of complexity in marine benthic assemblages. Although the new index makes an important contribution to the study of biodiversity in sedimentary environment, it remains to be seen which processes, and at what scales, influence benthic patterns. The ability to predict the effects of ecological phenomena on benthic fauna highly depends on both spatial and temporal scales of variation. Once defined, implicitly or explicitly, these scales influence the questions asked, the methodological approaches and the interpretation of results. Problem often arise when representative samples are not taken and results are over-generalized, as can happen when results from small-scale experiments are used for resource planning and management. Such issues, although globally recognized, are far from been resolved in the North Adriatic Sea. This area is potentially affected by both natural (e.g. river inflow, eutrophication) and anthropogenic (e.g. gas extraction, fish-trawling) sources of disturbance. Although few studies in this area aimed at understanding which of these processes mainly affect macrobenthos, these have been conducted at a small spatial scale, as they were designated to examine local changes in benthic communities or particular species. However, in order to better describe all the putative processes occurring in the entire area, a high sampling effort performed at a large spatial scale is required. The sedimentary environment of the western part of the Adriatic Sea was extensively studied in this thesis. I have described, in detail, spatial patterns both in terms of sedimentary characteristics and macrobenthic organisms and have suggested putative processes (natural or of human origin) that might affect the benthic environment of the entire area. In particular I have examined the effect of off shore gas platforms on benthic diversity and tested their effect over a background of natural spatial variability. The results obtained suggest that natural processes in the North Adriatic such as river outflow and euthrophication show an inter-annual variability that might have important consequences on benthic assemblages, affecting for example their spatial pattern moving away from the coast and along a North to South gradient. Depth-related factors, such as food supply, light, temperature and salinity play an important role in explaining large scale benthic spatial variability (i.e., affecting both the abundance patterns and beta diversity). Nonetheless, more locally, effects probably related to an organic enrichment or pollution from Po river input has been observed. All these processes, together with few human-induced sources of variability (e.g. fishing disturbance), have a higher effect on macrofauna distribution than any effect related to the presence of gas platforms. The main effect of gas platforms is restricted mainly to small spatial scales and related to a change in habitat complexity due to a natural dislodgement or structure cleaning of mussels that colonize their legs. The accumulation of mussels on the sediment reasonably affects benthic infauna composition. All the components of the study presented in this thesis highlight the need to carefully consider methodological aspects related to the study of sedimentary habitats. With particular regards to the North Adriatic Sea, a multi-scale analysis along natural and anthopogenic gradients was useful for detecting the influence of all the processes affecting the sedimentary environment. In the future, applying a similar approach may lead to an unambiguous assessment of the state of the benthic community in the North Adriatic Sea. Such assessment may be useful in understanding if any anthropogenic source of disturbance has a negative effect on the marine environment, and if so, planning sustainable strategies for a proper management of the affected area.

Tipologia del documento
Tesi di dottorato
Fontana, Giovanni
Dottorato di ricerca
Scuola di dottorato
Scienze della terra e dell'ambiente
Settore disciplinare
Settore concorsuale
Data di discussione
19 Giugno 2009

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