Community structure and function of macrobenthos in three feature areas of the Natal Bight, South Africa.
The Natal Bight off the east coast of South Africa is a unique shelf habitat, exhibiting high secondary productivity and supporting high diversity. Ecosystem attributes are influenced by local oceanographic features and outwelling via one of the largest rivers in the country. This study forms part of a larger, multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary study under the second phase of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP II) Natal Bight Project, investigating how material sources, posited to be derived from these features, shape the ecological structure and functioning of the region. Macrobenthic samples were collected along cross shelf transects off Richard’s Bay, Durban and the Thukela River mouth during two cruises, corresponding with periods of variable rainfall. Macrobenthic communities were classified taxonomically, to the lowest level possible, and functionally. Community patterns were investigated within and between feature areas and related to measurable environmental factors in order to determine environmental drivers and assess the importance of identified oceanographic features. Environmental parameters measured included sedimentary characteristics as well as physico-chemical conditions in the surrounding pelagic milieu. A total of 38 215 individuals belonging to 826 taxa were recorded from the three feature areas, of which the majority were Polychaeta and Crustacea. An in-depth investigation of the polychaete component has shown that this group can be used as a proxy for the whole macrobenthic community which has important implications for future studies. Facultative feeding modes dominated the trophic functioning macrobenthic communities sampled on the Natal Bight. Primary community metrics of abundance and numbers of macrobenthic taxa were reduced from the high to low rainfall period but differences were not significant, probably due to the lack of temporal repetition. The Thukela feature area was found to support the most abundant and taxon rich macrobenthic community. Mid-shelf stations sampled along the Thukela and Durban transects were in close proximity to the coarse paleo-dune cordon, running along the 60 m isobath and supported a diverse assemblage. Despite the lack of temporal repetition in the present study, there were significant short-term changes in the structure and functioning of macrobenthic communities on the Thukela shelf. This suggests that Thukela River outflow has a significant effect on the functioning of the Natal Bight ecosystem. This was surprising given the importance which has previously been placed on the Cape St. Lucia upwelling cell in terms of contributing nutrients and sustaining biological productivity and diversity on the Natal Bight.