Habitat structure and complexity as determinants of biodiversity in blue mussel beds on sublittoral rocky shores

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Habitat-forming, ecosystem engineer species are common in most marine systems. Still, much uncertainty exists about how individual and population-level traits of these species contribute to ecosystem processes and how engineering species jointly affect biodiversity. In this manipulative field experiment, we examined how biodiversity in marginal blue mussel beds is affected by blue mussel (1) body size, density and patch context and (2) presence of fucoid and algal structures. In the study area, bladder-wrack (Fucusvesiculosus), filamentous algae and blue mussels (Mytilus edulis) coexist at shallow depths in a variety of patch configurations and offer complex habitats with a high variability of resources. We hypothesized that complexity in terms of mussel bed structure and algal presence determines species composition and abundance. Results from the experiment were compared with macrofaunal communities found in natural populations of both engineering species. Results show that the physical structure and blue mussel patch context are important determinants for species composition and abundance. Results further show that the presence of algal structures positively affects diversity in blue mussel habitats due to increased surface availability and complexity that these algae offer. This study shows that blue mussel beds at the very margin of their distribution have an indisputable function for promoting and maintaining biodiversity and suggest that facilitative effects of habitat-modifying species are important on Baltic Sea rocky shores with fundamental importance to community structure.

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