Habitat heterogeneity: A confounding factor for the effect of pollutants on macrobenthic community in coastal waters

Mar Environ Res. 2021 Oct 7;172:105499. doi: 10.1016/j.marenvres.2021.105499. Online ahead of print.


Discrepancies were found between Ecological Status of sediments evaluated though the analysis of macrobenthic community and chemical analyses along a heavily trafficked and contaminated maritime seaway in Tyrrhenian Sea. Chemical analyses showed some sites highly contaminated by PAHs and metals with values exceeding thresholds for Good Chemical status and representing potential toxicological risk for benthic animals. Conversely, macrobenthic communities were highly rich and diverse, with Ecological Status (through M-AMBI) Good and High at each site. Sampling depth, total organic carbon, and total nitrogen were the major factors influencing biotic indices (AMBI, M-AMBI, S, H), even if concentrations of PAHs and metals (V, As, and Fe) contributed in explaining a part of indices variability. Habitat heterogeneity of sampled sites is likely acting as a confounding factor for two reasons: (1) high variability of environmental parameters leads to high richness and diversity, to which M-AMBI is sensitive, and (2) environmental parameters explained part of the variability of indices, together with contaminants. Our results suggested the importance of considering natural variability as a fundamental step of environmental impact assessment, for the correct interpretation of biotic indices.

Keywords: Benthos; Biotic indices; Contaminants; Ecological status; Soft bottom; Tyrrhenian Sea.