Towards a size based assessment of the ecological status of coastal benthic habitats

Master Thesis subject (30 ECTS)
In the framework of international legislation (i.e. Marine Strategy Framework Directive), European countries need to assess how healthy the marine ecosystem is in their territories. So far, theses assessments are mainly based on indices based on species identity, and abundances of species. However, assessing the quality of an ecosystem component requires that the function of that component is investigated. Benthic ecosystem functioning is largely depending on functional aspects of the communities inhabiting the sediment, and not on the “name” of the organism. Therefore, research turned towards the understanding of how functional attributes of communities reflect the quality of an ecosystem component. A very important functional characteristic of a community is the distribution of body sizes: larger animals usually have a more profound effect than smaller animals. In pelagic component of the ecosystem, the use of indicators based on organism size is well established, while for benthic ecosystems, this research is only emerging. This thesis will contribute to this emerging field of research by investigating size related aspects of macrofaunal communities in relation to anthropogenic disturbance. Macrofaunal communities are considered as ideal monitoring tool, however the bulk of the indicators are derived from structural aspects (i.e. based on species identities). Based on newly collected data (students should be willing to participate to sampling campaings at sea) and existing data, we will investigate whether size-related aspects of these communities (biomass spectra, size diversity) can be used as a tool to detect environmental disturbance by human activities, and evaluate their usefulness compared to traditional tools. This is a first, but important step towards size based assessments of the status of coastal benthic habitats.
Number of students: 
academic year: 
Contact person email: 
contact person first name: 
Jan Vanaverbeke
Other people involved: 
Gert Van Hoey
Reference Number: RP-39811