The new found ability to measure physical attributes of the marine environment at high resolution across broad spatial scales has driven the rapid evolution of benthic habitat mapping as a field in its own right. Improvement of the resolution and ecological validity of seafloor habitat distribution models has, for the most part, paralleled developments in new generations of acoustic survey tools such as multibeam echosounders. While sonar methods have been well demonstrated to provide useful proxies of the relatively static geophysical patterns that reflect distribution of benthic species and assemblages, the spatially and temporally variable influence of hydrodynamic energy on habitat distribution have been less well studied. Here we investigate the role of wave exposure on patterns of distribution of near-shore benthic habitats. A high resolution spectral wave model was developed for a 624 km2 site along Cape Otway, a major coastal feature of western Victoria, Australia. Comparison of habitat classifications implemented using the Random Forests algorithm established that significantly more accurate estimations of habitat distribution were obtained by including a fine-scale numerical wave model, extended to the seabed using linear wave theory, than by using depth and seafloor morphology information alone. Variable importance measures and map interpretation indicated that the spatial variation in wave induced bottom orbital velocity was most influential in discriminating habitat the classes containing canopy forming kelp Ecklonia radiata, a foundation kelp species that affects biodiversity and ecological functioning on shallow reefs across temperate Australasia. We demonstrate that hydrodynamic models reflecting key environmental drivers on wave exposed coastlines are important in accurately defining distributions of benthic habitats
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