Under the radar: sessile epifaunal invertebrates in the seagrass Posidonia australis
Despite the current global decline in seagrass, sessile epifaunal invertebrates inhabiting seagrass ecosystems, particularly sponges and ascidians, have been poorly studied due to their taxonomic complexity. Understanding patterns of distribution of sessile epifaunal communities in seagrass meadows is an important precursor to determining the processes driving their distribution and species interactions. This study (1) identified the sponge and ascidian assemblage associated with Posidonia australis meadows and (2) determined distributional patterns of these invertebrates at a hierarchy of spatial scales in Jervis Bay, Australia. We used a fully nested design with transects distributed in the seagrass (10s m apart), two sites (100s m apart), and six locations (km apart). Within these transects, we recorded the abundance, volume, diversity and substratum used for attachment by sponges and ascidians. We encountered 20 sponge species and eight ascidian species; they were sporadically distributed in the seagrass meadows with high variability among the transects, sites and locations. A few sponge and ascidian species dominated the assemblage and were widespread across the largest spatial scale sampled. The remaining species were mostly rare and sparsely distributed. Sponges attached to a variety of substrata but most notably shells, P. australis and polychaete tubes. No obligate seagrass species were recorded although three species predominantly used P. australis as a substratum. These sponge species relying heavily on seagrass for their attachment are likely prone to disturbances impacting their host habitat. Examining the response of sessile epifauna to the degradation of their seagrass habitat remains a key challenge for the future.