ABSTRACT

Drilling for oil/gas and trawling on a continental shelf can cause damage to hard-bottom communities. Moving these activities offshore poses a threat to offshore communities. Habitat complexity is correlated with species diversity. The relationship of bottom relief to benthic species richness is not well understood in deeper communities. Relief may act as a proxy for species richness and disturbance risk. Geographic patterns in relief and richness are also not well understood. We gathered information on bottom relief and species richness of the sessile epibenthic community using a remotely operated vehicle. We surveyed hard bottom on the flanks of 13 banks in the north–central Gulf of Mexico, greater than 27-m (89-ft) depth, on the shelf and at the shelf edge. We found a positive asymptotic relationship between mean relief and species richness at the transect level. Secondary analyses at the drop site level revealed a similar relationship; variance was higher. The relationship was positively linear at the bank level. Analyses using standard deviation of relief yielded even stronger positive results. There was no significant relationship between species richness and latitude or longitude over the study area (215 km [133 mi]). When species richness was plotted in three dimensions, however, peaks in richness emerged in the southeastern study area and the western region, with a trough between them, coinciding with bottom relief. Species richness is positively correlated with bottom relief on banks in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Relief and species richness may be predicted at many spatial scales, up to hundreds of kilometers.

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