The importance of spatial scale for the conservation of tidal flat macrobenthos: An example from New South Wales, Australia
Planners of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) commonly use maps of habitat types when choosing areas to conserve. This assumes that habitats are homogeneous, and therefore, that any area of habitat will represent the full spectrum of ecological diversity within that habitat. Here, we report that macrobenthic assemblages in tidal flat habitats were spatially heterogeneous in terms of beta diversity (taxonomic turnover), abundance, taxonomic richness and Shannon–Wiener H′ Diversity. Importantly, the patterns of heterogeneity were scale dependent for the three spatial scales we examined; plots (20 m), sites (100s of m) and estuaries (km). The three estuaries in the study were compositionally similar as they shared the same dominant taxa, although one estuary had significantly more taxa and a higher abundance of macrobenthos. Assemblages within tidal flats differed at scales of 100s of m for all ecological measures. Most notably, beta diversity was highest at this scale. Assemblages were relatively more homogeneous at the 20-m scale. These findings highlight the value of examining more than one ecological measure and estimating magnitude of effects across a variety of scales. This work presents two important considerations for MPAs. First, although tidal flats in different estuaries are compositionally similar for dominant taxa, rarer taxa and high heterogeneity in abundance should influence the choice and number of tidal flats in MPAs. Second, strong compositional heterogeneity within individual tidal flats implies that conservation of whole habitat, rather than sections of a tidal flat, is essential if this habitat type is to be used to represent taxonomic diversity.