Multiple stressors in sediments impact adjacent hard substrate habitats and across biological domains

Jasmin C. Lawes*, Katherine A. Dafforn, Graeme F. Clark, Mark V. Brown, Emma L. Johnston

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Coastal systems are increasingly impacted by human activities. While the direct effects of individual contaminants have been investigated, the potential for multiple contaminants to impact adjacent hard substrate habitats is poorly understood. Sediment-bound contaminants pose a risk to water column organisms through resuspension and the fluxing of dissolved nutrients and metals. This study experimentally manipulated contaminated coastal sediments in mesocosms with additions of a common fertiliser to investigate the impact on both bacterial biofilms and macrofouling communities on nearby hard substrates. Field mesocosms were deployed sub-tidally for two weeks in a fully crossed design with two levels of metal contamination (ambient or high) and three levels of organic enrichment (ambient, low and high). Developing biofilm and macrofaunal communities were collected on acetate settlement sheets above the mesocosm sediments and censused with a combination of high-throughput sequencing (biofilm) and microscopy (macrofauna). Organic enrichment of sediments induced compositional shifts in biofilm communities, reducing their diversity, evenness and richness. Furthermore, co-occurrence networks built from microbial assemblages exposed to contaminated sediments displayed reduced connectivity compared to controls, suggesting a more stochastic assembly dynamic, where microbial interactions are reduced. Macrofouling community composition shifted in response to increased enrichment with separate and interactive effects of metals also observed for individual taxa. Specifically, antagonistic stressor interactions were observed for colonial ascidians and arborescent bryozoans; metal contamination decreased abundances of these taxa, except under high enrichment conditions. Together these micro- and macrofaunal responses indicate selection for depauperate, but contaminant-tolerant, communities and a potential breakdown in biotic connectivity through multiple stressor impacts across habitat boundaries.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-305
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • bacterial biofilms
  • bacterial network connectivity
  • contaminated sediments
  • heavy metals
  • organic enrichment
  • sub-tidal fouling communities


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