The Banc d'Arguin, a non-estuarine area of shallows and intertidal flats off the tropical Saharan coast of Mauritania, is characterised by extensive intertidal and subtidal seagrass beds. We examined the characteristics of intertidal seagrass (Zostera noltii) meadows and bare areas in terms of the presence and abundance of molluscs (gastropods and bivalves). To explain observed differences between molluscan assemblages in seagrass and bare patches, some aspects of the feeding habitat (top-5 mm of the sediment) and of food (organic materials) of molluscs were examined. The novelty of this study is that phytopigments were measured and identified to assess source and level of decay (freshness) of organic material in the sediment and to study their importance as an explanatory variable for the distribution of molluscs. Over an area of 36 km2 of intertidal flats, at 12 sites, paired comparisons were made between seagrass-covered and nearby bare patches. Within seagrass meadows, dry mass of living seagrass was large and amounted to 180±10 g AFDM m−2 (range 75–240). Containing twice the amount of silt per unit dry sediment mass, seagrass sediments were muddier than bare areas; the relative amount of organic material was also larger. The total number of species of bivalves and gastropods amounted to 27, 14 of which were found only in seagrass areas, 4 only in bare and 9 in both types of habitat. Among the three numerically most abundant species, the bivalves Anadara senilis, Dosinia hepatica and Loripes lacteus, the first was numerically most abundant in bare and the other two in seagrass-covered areas. Bare intertidal areas had greater mean total biomass of molluscs (80.5 g AFDM m−2) than seagrass meadows (30.0 g AFDM m−2). In both habitats, the bulk of the biomass was made up by A. senilis. Excluding this species, bare mudflats contained on average only 3.1 g AFDM m−2 and seagrass meadows 6.9 g AFDM m−2. As compared to previous surveys in 1980–1986, the biomass of A. senilis had increased almost 10-fold and D. hepatica, previously found in very small numbers, had become the most numerous species. However, the total biomass excluding that of A. senilis was similar. Concentrations of phytopigments were similar to those observed at temperate mudflats, indicating that the Banc d'Arguin might not be as oligotrophic as previously thought. Per unit of dry sediment mass, smaller amounts of phytopigments were found in bare than in seagrass areas. Per unit of dry organic material, bare sediments contained most (fresh) phytopigments. This suggests that in seagrass-covered meadows the organic material is more degraded than in bare sediments. Overall, the composition of phytopigments, quite surprisingly, indicated a benthic-diatom-dominated trophic system. Multivariate statistics revealed that patterns of zoobenthic assemblages were correlated with patterns of a combination of four environmental parameters: grain size of the sediment, amount of fresh phytopigments and amounts of leaves and roots of seagrass.
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