Needham, H.R., Pilditch, C.A., Lohrer, A.M. & Thrush, S.F. (2011). Context-specific bioturbation mediates changes to ecosystem functioning. Ecosystems, 3 August 2011.
Permanent Research Commons link: http://hdl.handle.net/10289/5675
Species are often grouped according to their biological or functional traits to better understand their contribution to ecosystem functioning. However, it is becoming clear that a single species can perform different roles in different habitats. Austrohelice crassa, a burrow-building mud crab shifts its primary bioturbational role to that of a vertical mixer in non-cohesive sediments as frequent burrow collapse greatly enhances sediment reworking. We conducted in situ crab density manipulations in two sediment environments (a non-cohesive sand and a cohesive muddy-sand) to examine if the contextspecific functional roles were linked to changes in solute fluxes across the sediment–water interface. Across both habitats, we show that A. crassa regulated nutrient cycling, creating strong density driven effects on solute exchanges. Increasing crab density increased sediment O₂ demand and the flux of NH₄⁺ from the sediment, indicating much of the response was physiologically driven. Clear interactions between A. crassa and microphytobenthos were also detected in both habitats. Despite lowering microphyte standing stock through deposit feeding, A. crassa increased benthic primary production per unit of chlorophyll a. Our experiment also revealed important context-specific differences, most notably for NH₄⁺ fluxes, which were higher where burrows and their associated microbial communities were most stable (muddy-sand). This study highlights the need to integrate interactions between organism behavior and habitat type into functional group studies to broaden conceptual frameworks and avoid oversimplification of highly complex organism–sediment interactions.