Niche segregation and habitat specialisation of harpacticoid copepods in a tropical seagrass bed
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Several harpacticoid copepod species are adapted to an epiphytic lifestyle. Previous studies on tropical seagrass meiofauna mainly focussed on the epiphytic communities and neglected the benthic component. The present study aims to document the benthic harpacticoid copepod communities sampled from different sediment depth horizons adjacent to five seagrass species in the intertidal and subtidal zone of a tropical seagrass bed (Gazi Bay, Kenya). Two benthic copepod communities could be identified mainly based on the tidal position of the samples: a first community was collected near the intertidal seagrasses Halophila ovalis and Halodule wrightii; a second community occurred near the subtidal seagrasses Thalassia hemprichii, Syringodium isoetifolium and Halophila stipulacea. The first community was mainly determined by sediment characteristics (e.g. skewness), while the second community was split off based on organic matter content (% TOM), nutrient and pigment values. A subtle combination of horizontal and vertical niche segregation was reported for the dominant copepod families. Species of the families Thalestridae, Laophontidae and Diosaccidae were structured by tidal position and showed a strong preference for the subtidal zone. The opposite strategy, i.e. a clear preference for the intertidal zone, was found for copepods belonging to the families Paramesochridae and Canuellidae. In addition, Apodopsyllus africanus (Paramesochridae) was well-adapted to stress and was concentrated in the deeper sediment layers near the subtidal seagrasses. On the other hand, Canuellidae, as filter feeders, were concentrated in the upper centimetres of the sediment. The families Ectinosomatidae and Cletodidae did not show any vertical or horizontal segregation. On the species level, however, clear horizontal niche segregation was detected for the family Cletodidae. In addition to the reported ecological results, the study material was used to evaluate different niche definitions. We found tidal position to be the most important factor forcing harpacticoids to specialise. Sediment depth horizon was less powerful in dividing the families into different guilds (from specialists to generalists) based on standardised niche breadth. The present study documents the subtle habitat partitioning of co-existing species in a limited area and its role in sustaining high biodiversity in the community.
KeywordsMeiofauna Subtidal Zone Harpacticoid Copepod Harpacticoids Copepod Community
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