Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Virginia Institute of Marine Science


Linda C. Schaffner


Estuaries are dynamic physical environments. The stability of the sediment-water interface is influenced by sources and rates of sediment delivery and physical reworking of sediments by currents, tides, waves and biology, but effects of disruption of this interface on benthic biology are poorly resolved. For this study, I investigated effects of prevalent gradients in seabed disturbance processes and associated seabed characteristics on estuarine benthic community structure and function in the mesohaline York River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, USA. I used a variety of approaches to characterize the seabed, including sediment grain size, sediment water content, maximum depth of 7Be, depth of the oxidized sediment layer, profiles of sediment Eh, physical structure of the sediment, sediment chlorophyll a, and sediment organic content. Differences in magnitude of deposition and subsequent reworking of sediments by physical processes were documented among the five benthic subenvironments sampled (south shoal, secondary channel, main channel flank, main channel, and north shoal). Temporal and spatial variations in spring recruitment were observed among subenvironments sampled weekly for recruits: the south shoal, secondary channel and main channel flank. Total recruitment was greatest in the main channel flank, which experienced the highest sediment deposition, and was limited in the secondary channel, which had the strongest tidal currents. The five benthic subenvironments sampled for patterns of community structure and estimates of secondary production were dominated by estuarine opportunist species. Total abundance was greatest in the north shoal, which experienced minimal deposition and physical reworking of sediment. Biomass and secondary production estimates were driven by presence of deep-dwelling bivalves, and were greatest in subenvironments that experienced deposition. These results suggest that variations in seabed characteristics across relatively small spatial scales can influence estuarine benthic community structure and function. Laboratory experiments were conducted to further elucidate the effect of sediment deposition on estuarine organism survival. Species representing both infaunal and epifaunal taxa ranged from highly susceptible to highly tolerant of burial by sediment. Survival was a function of organism motility, residence depth and perhaps physiological adaptations. Small, shallow-dwelling juveniles of some common estuarine species were highly tolerant of burial.



© The Author