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Influence of oyster reefs on infauna and sediment spatial distributions within intertidal mudflats

Sara Hogan*, Elizabeth A. K. Murphy, Martin P. Volaric, Max C. N. Castorani, Peter Berg, Matthew A. Reidenbach

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Oysters are described as estuarine ecosystem engineers because their reef structures provide habitat for a variety of flora and fauna, alter hydrodynamics, and affect sediment composition. To what spatial extent oyster reefs influence surrounding infauna and sediment composition remains uncertain. We sampled sediment and infauna across eight intertidal mudflats at distances up to 100 m from oyster reefs within coastal bays of Virginia, USA, to determine if distance from reefs and physical site characteristics (reef elevation, local hydrodynamics, and oyster cover) explain the spatial distributions of infauna and sediment. Total infauna density increased with distance away from reefs, however, the opposite was observed for predatory crustaceans (primarily crabs). Our results indicate a halo surrounding the reefs of approximately 40 m (using an increase in ~25% of observance as the halo criterion). At 90 m from reefs, bivalves and gastropods were 70% more likely to be found (probability of observance), while there was an approximate 4-fold decrease for large crustaceans compared to locations adjacent to reefs. Increases in percent oyster reef cover and/or mean reef area did not statistically alter infauna densities but showed a statistical correlation with smaller sediment grain size, increased organic matter, and reduced flow rates. Weaker flow conditions within the surrounding mudflats were also associated with smaller grain sizes and higher organic matter content, suggesting multiple drivers on the spatial distribution of sediment composition. This study emphasizes the complexity of bio-physical couplings and the considerable spatial extent over which oyster reefs engineer intertidal communities.