The importance of marine sediment biodiversity in ecosystem processes

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Sedimentary habitats cover most of the ocean bottom and therefore constitute the largest single ecosystem on earth in spatial coverage. Although only a small fraction of the micro-, meio- and macroscopic benthic organisms that reside in and on sediments have been described and few estimates of total species numbers and biogeographic pattern have been attempted, there is sufficient information on a few species to suggest that sedimentary organisms significantly impact major ecological processes. Benthic organisms contribute to regulation of carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur cycling, water column processes, pollutant distribution and fate, secondary production, and transport and stability of sediments. Linkages between groups of organisms and the level of functional redundancy is poorly known, however, there is probably substantial redundancy within groups. There is little evidence that biodiversity per se is necessary for benthic systems to contribute to ecosystem services, but because linkages are so poorly known and predictive knowledge confined to a few species, it is not presently possible to predict exactly how species loss will impact these services and ecosystem health. Thus, a precautionary approach of 'assume the worst' is advised, and every effort should be made to curtail the species and genetic diversity loss resulting from fishing, pollution, habitat destruction, introduction of non-native (exotic) species, and global warming. Concurrently, scientists must take advantage of exciting, rapidly evolving technology and a rejuvenated interest in biodiversity to provide more concrete and thorough information on benthos and ecosystem processes.

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