Variation in species diversity and functional traits of sponge communities near human populations in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

PMID 26587347


Recent studies have renewed interest in sponge ecology by emphasizing the functional importance of sponges in a broad array of ecosystem services. Many critically important habitats occupied by sponges face chronic stressors that might lead to alterations in their diversity, relatedness, and functional attributes. We addressed whether proximity to human activity might be a significant factor in structuring sponge community composition, as well as potential functional roles, by monitoring sponge diversity and abundance at two structurally similar sites that vary in distance to areas of high coastal development in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We surveyed sponge communities at each site using belt transects and differences between two sites were compared using the following variables: (1) sponge species richness, Shannon diversity, and inverse Simpson's diversity; (2) phylogenetic diversity; (3) taxonomic and phylogenetic beta diversity; (4) trait diversity and dissimilarity; and (5) phylogenetic and trait patterns in community structure. We observed significantly higher sponge diversity at Punta Caracol, the site most distant from human development (∼5 km). Although phylogenetic diversity was lower at Saigon Bay, the site adjacent to a large village including many houses, businesses, and an airport, the sites did not exhibit significantly different patterns of phylogenetic relatedness in species composition. However, each site had a distinct taxonomic and phylogenetic composition (beta diversity). In addition, the sponge community at Saigon included a higher relative abundance of sponges with high microbial abundance and high chlorophyll a concentration, whereas the community at Punta Caracol had a more even distribution of these traits, yielding a significant difference in functional trait diversity between sites. These results suggest that lower diversity and potentially altered community function might be associated with proximity to human populations. This study highlights the importance of evaluating functional traits and phylogenetic diversity in addition to common diversity metrics when assessing potential environmental impacts on benthic communities.

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Chlorophyll a, from Anacystis nidulans algae
Chlorophyll a, from spinach