Sabellaria alveolata is a gregarious polychaete that uses sand particles to build three-dimensional structures known as reefs, fixed atop rocks or built on soft sediments. These structures are known to modify the local grain-size distribution and to host a highly diversified macrofauna, altered when the reef undergoes disturbances.
The goal of this study was to investigate the different sedimentary and biological changes associated with the presence of a S. alveolata reef over two contrasting seasons (late winter and late summer), and how these changes were linked. Three different sediments were considered: the engineered sediment (the actual reef), the associated sediment (the soft sediment surrounding the reef structures) and a control soft sediment (i.e. no reef structures in close proximity). Univariate and multivariate comparisons of grain-size distribution, soft sediment characteristics (organic matter content, chlorophyll a, pheopigments and carbohydrate concentrations) and macrofauna were conducted between the different sediment types at both seasons and between the two seasons for each sediment type. A distance-based redundancy analyses (dbRDA) was used to investigate the link between the different environmental parameters and the macrofauna assemblages. Finally, we focused on a disturbance continuum of the engineered sediments proxied by an increase in the mud present in these sediments. The effects of a continuous and increasing disturbance on the associated fauna were investigated using pairwise beta diversity indices (Sørensen and Bray-Curtis dissimilarities and their decomposition into turnover and nestedness). Results showed a significant effect of the reef on the local sediment distribution (coarser sediments compared to the control) and on the benthic primary production (higher in the associated sediments). At both seasons, S. alveolata biomass and sediment principal mode were the environmental parameters which best differentiated the engineered, associated and control sediment assemblages. These two parameters are under the ecosystem engineer's influence stressing its importance in structuring benthic macrofauna. Furthermore, in late summer but not in late winter, presence/absence and abundance based beta diversity were positively correlated to our disturbance proxy (mud content) a tendency driven by a species replacement and a rise in the associated fauna density.
Our first set of results highlight the importance of S. alveolata reefs as benthic primary production enhancers via their physical structure and their biological activity. The results obtained using beta diversity indices emphasize the importance of recruitment in structuring the reef's macrofauna and – paradoxically – the ecological value of S. alveolata degraded forms as biodiversity and recruitment promoters.