The ecological benefits of adding topographic complexity to seawalls vary across estuarine gradients

Gemma A. Clifton*, Katherine A. Dafforn, Melanie J. Bishop

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Artificial structures such as seawalls increasingly dominate marine urban environments. As compared to natural rocky shore habitats, seawalls are usually flat, featureless, vertical surfaces that support reduced biodiversity. One approach to increase their biodiversity is to add topographic complexity (‘complexity’) that increases microhabitat diversity and surface area. Initial investigations of the effects of complexity on the biodiversity of marine built structures found positive relationships, but more recently spatially variable effects have been found at a biogeographical scale. The present study tested whether at the scale of sites within an estuary (in this case Sydney Harbour), effects of complexity also spatially vary, and whether pollution and estuarine gradients are good predictors of this variation. Comparisons of intertidal communities colonising flat and complex (creviced / ridged) tiles, affixed to seawalls confirmed that effects of complexity were spatially variable at the site-scale, ranging from neutral to highly positive. Proximity to stormdrains, a point source of contaminants including metals, was a poor predictor of complexity effects, but effects were generally greater in the outer harbour, where biodiversity was overall greater, than the inner harbour. These results suggest that eco-engineering interventions based on complexity will not have universally positive effects and instead vary between sites separated by as little as hundreds of meters. Knowledge of spatial variation in physico-chemical conditions and the size and composition of the species pool of available colonists may assist in predicting when and where adding complexity to marine built structures will be of ecological benefit.

Original languageEnglish
Article number106735
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalEcological Engineering
Early online date21 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022


  • Microhabitat
  • Eco-engineering
  • Estuarine
  • Biodiversity
  • Stormdrain
  • Metal contamination


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