Spatial and temporary variations in macrozoobenthic communities in KwaZulu-Natal temporarily open/closed estuaries.
Estuaries are complex ecosystems, typified by remarkable fluctuations in environmental conditions. In addition to this natural variability, stochastic events and anthropogenic influences effect change at different spatial and temporal scales. Macrozoobenthic invertebrates are preferable biological indicators because of their sensitivity to variations in habitat quality. This thesis describes inherent changes in the macrozoobenthos of temporarily open/closed estuaries (TOCEs) in KwaZulu-Natal, ‘change’ as measured in spatial and temporal community differences using various community metrics, namely species composition, abundance and diversity. Standard and widely published quantitative sampling techniques were employed, with simultaneous measurements of ambient physico-chemical conditions, including sediment characteristics. The thesis is in three parts. Regional distributions and long-term decadal-type changes in macrozoobenthic community structure were determined for 31 TOCEs using historical data (1998/9) compared with more recently collected data (2009/10). Results showed that, although of the same estuary type, the macrozoobenthic communities of these estuaries differed significantly. Furthermore, community composition did not reflect a north to south progression of predominantly tropical species to predominantly warm-temperate species. In the last decade, the macrozoobenthos of these systems had indeed changed (in composition, abundance and/or diversity), the scale of change within each estuary being estuary-dependent. The recolonisation of two urban and non-urban estuaries by macrozoobenthos following a stochastic flood disturbance was investigated, describing the short-term community changes during the recovery process. Differential recolonisation patterns were attributed to inherent differences in community composition and not to the influence of urbanisation. Recolonisation was marked by distinct changes in community structure, with the recovery trajectory being interrupted by localised disturbances (e.g. change of mouth state). Species indicative of the observed spatial and temporal community changes were examined for similarities in habitat association and trophic characteristics. The species that were representative of these KwaZulu-Natal TOCEs were identified and included common and highly abundant generalists of varying trophic groups. In conclusion, the present findings illustrated the effectiveness of using macrozoobenthic communities to depict ‘change’ over multiple temporal and spatial scales. This also supports their usefulness as a study group in environmental monitoring and detecting the loss of ecological functioning and biodiversity in estuaries in the long- and short-term.