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Assessment of sediment penetrability as an integrated in situ measure of intertidal soft-sediment conditions

Travis G. Gerwing*, Myriam A. Barbeau, Diana J. Hamilton, Alyssa M. Allen Gerwing, Jesse Sinclair, Lily Campbell, Morgan M. Davies, Bronwyn Harvey, Francis Juanes, Sarah E. Dudas

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ABSTRACT: Infauna have an intimate relationship with the sediments they inhabit, and any study conducted upon infauna must, at the very least, describe sediment conditions. Common sediment assessments in intertidal systems include particle size distribution, as well as water and organic matter contents. These measures require extracting and processing a sediment core, and this disturbance may result in data that do not necessarily reflect in situ conditions. Sediment penetrability measured in situ by using a penetrometer can circumvent this limitation. However, relationships between sediment penetrability and other sediment variables are poorly understood, especially in coastal systems. We evaluated the relationship between sediment penetrability and other variables – depth to the apparent redox potential discontinuity, mean particle size, organic matter content, and water content – on tidal flats along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Canada. We also assessed if adding penetrability into environmental models of the infaunal community improved model performance. We observed that while penetrability is statistically related to other sediment variables, relationships to covariates were weak. Further, inclusion of penetrability with other sediment variables improved the performance of models predicting infaunal community composition. Therefore, penetrability can be considered a separate variable, and contributes to an integrated assessment of environmental conditions experienced by biota. Finally, since we evaluated this method in different soft-sediment intertidal ecosystems (mudflats to sandflats), this method is applicable to a range of systems in other geographical areas.