MEPS 340:73-88 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps340073

Richness and distribution of sponge megabenthos in continental margin canyons off southeastern Australia

Thomas A. Schlacher1,*, Monika A. Schlacher-Hoenlinger1,2, Alan Williams3, Franziska Althaus3, John N. A. Hooper2, Rudy Kloser3

1Faculty of Science, Health & Education, The University of the Sunshine Coast, Maroochydore DC, Queensland 4558, Australia
2Biodiversity Program, Queensland Museum, PO Box 3300, South Brisbane, Queensland 4101, Australia
3Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Marine & Atmospheric Research, PO Box 1538, Hobart, Tasmania 7001, Australia

ABSTRACT: Submarine canyons are spectacular topographical features that intersect the continental margins of the world’s oceans. Canyons comprise unique habitats in terms of complexity, instability, material processing, and hydrodynamics, and they may support diverse assemblages of larger epibenthos. Yet, quantitative data on the biodiversity of the megabenthos in canyons are scant. Consequently, we quantified the diversity of sponges (a key and dominant group of the megabenthos) in 5 canyons located on the continental margin off southeastern Australia at depths from 114 to 612 m. The canyons harboured a rich sponge fauna, with a total of 165 species, belonging to 65 genera, 41 families, 10 orders, and 2 classes in 14 sled samples. Species richness declined with depth, but was positively linked to spatial heterogeneity of bottom types. Areas comprised of a broader range of bottom types (e.g. mixed rocky and sandy/muddy bottoms) contained more species than areas with more uniform substratum properties. Spatial patterns of the sponge assemblages were characterized by (1) high species turnover both between sites in individual canyons and between different canyons, and (2) low levels of site occupancy of the component species, with most species recorded from single canyons only. Variations in depth, substratum type and topographic relief resulted in heterogeneous environmental conditions of benthic habitats in canyons that corresponded to changes in the assemblage structure of sponges. A broad comparison with other abrupt topographical features in the bathyal zone of the region suggests that canyon assemblages may rival the diversity of sponges on seamounts. Site-to-site variation in diversity and species composition within individual canyons suggests that biological patterns may be finer-grained than the spatial scale of conventional geomorphological units. Consequently, from a perspective of conservation planning, a single or a few canyons are unlikely to accurately represent the regional faunal diversity, because of the strong biotic separation of communities between canyons and the limited distributional ranges of the component species.

KEY WORDS: Submarine canyons · Megabenthos · Porifera · Diversity · Species-range sizes

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