Article: The effects of habitat loss, fragmentation, and community homogenization on resilience in estuaries

Journal Article
Container Title: 
Ecological Applications
Thrush, S. F.; Halliday, J.; Hewitt, J. E.; Lohrer, A. M.
Publication Date: 

When changes in the frequency and extent of disturbance outstrip the recovery potential of resident communities, the selective removal of species contributes to habitat loss and fragmentation across landscapes. The degree to which habitat change is likely to influence community resilience will depend on metacommunity structure and connectivity. Thus ecological connectivity is central to understanding the potential for cumulative effects to impact upon diversity. The importance of these issues to coastal marine communities, where the prevailing concept of open communities composed of highly dispersive species is being challenged, indicates that these systems may be more sensitive to cumulative impacts than previously thought. We conducted a disturbance-recovery experiment across gradients of community type and environmental conditions to assess the roles of ecological connectivity and regional variations in community structure on the recovery of species richness, total abundance, and community composition in Mahurangi Harbour, New Zealand. After 394 days, significant differences in recovery between sites were apparent. Statistical models explaining a high proportion of the variability (R-2 > 0.92) suggested that community recovery rates were controlled by a combination of physical and ecological features operating across spatial scales, affecting successional processes. The dynamic and complex interplay of ecological and environmental processes we observed driving patch recovery across the estuarine landscape are integral to recovery from disturbances in heterogeneous environments. This link between succession/recovery, disturbance, and heterogeneity confirms the utility of disturbance-recovery experiments as assays for cumulative change due to fragmentation and habitat change in estuaries.

Changes in the disturbance regime could increase the time it takes for a habitat to recover; Reduced connectivity may negatively impact biodiversity and ultimately the resilience of the ecosystem.