Disturbance and Ecosystem Functioning: the Role of Changes in Benthic Biological Traits

Norkko, A. (Supervisor)

Activity: Examination typesSupervisor or co-supervisor of doctoral thesis


Rapid changes in biodiversity are occurring globally, as a consequence of anthropogenic disturbance. This has raised concerns, since biodiversity is known to significantly contribute to ecosystem functions and services. Marine benthic communities participate in numerous functions provided by soft-sedimentary ecosystems. Eutrophication-induced oxygen deficiency is a growing threat against infaunal communities, both in open sea areas and in coastal zones. There is thus a need to understand how such disturbance affects benthic communities, and what is lost in terms of ecosystem functioning if benthic communities are harmed.
In this thesis, the status of benthic biodiversity was assessed for the open Baltic Sea, a system severely affected by broad-scale hypoxia. Long-term monitoring data made it possible to establish quantitative biodiversity baselines against which change could be compared. The findings show that benthic biodiversity is currently severely impaired in large areas of the open Baltic Sea, from the Bornholm Basin to the Gulf of Finland. The observed reduction in biodiversity indicates that benthic communities are structurally and functionally impoverished in several of the sub-basins due to the hypoxic stress.
A more detailed examination of disturbance impacts (through field studies and -experiments) on benthic communities in coastal areas showed that changes in benthic community structure and function took place well before species were lost from the system. The degradation of benthic community structure and function was directed by the type of disturbance, and its specific temporal and spatial characteristics. The observed shifts in benthic trait composition were primarily the result of reductions in species’ abundances, or of changes in demographic characteristics, such as the loss of large, adult bivalves. Reduction in community functions was expressed as declines in the benthic bioturbation potential and in secondary biomass production.
The benthic communities and their degradation accounted for a substantial proportion of the changes observed in ecosystem multifunctionality. Individual ecosystem functions (i.e. measures of sediment ecosystem metabolism, elemental cycling, biomass production, organic matter transformation and physical structuring) were observed to differ in their response to increasing hypoxic disturbance. Interestingly, the results suggested that an impairment of ecosystem functioning could be detected at an earlier stage if multiple functions were considered. Importantly, the findings indicate that even small-scale hypoxic disturbance can reduce the buffering capacity of sedimentary ecosystem, and increase the susceptibility of the system towards further stress. Although the results of the individual papers are context-dependent, their combined outcome implies that healthy benthic communities are important for sustaining overall ecosystem functioning as well as ecosystem resilience in the Baltic Sea.
Period14 Jun 2013
ExamineeAnna Villnäs
Examination held atÅbo Akademi
Degree of RecognitionInternational