Shorebirds Affect Ecosystem Functioning on an Intertidal Mudflat
Ecosystem functioning and services have provided a rationale for conservation over the past decades. Intertidal muddy sediments, and the microphytobenthic biofilms that inhabit them, perform crucial ecosystem functions including erosion protection, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. It has been suggested that predation on sediment macrofauna by shorebirds may impact biofilms, and shorebirds are known to consume biofilm, potentially causing significant top-down effects on mudflat ecosystem functioning. We carried out an exclusion experiment on the Colne Estuary, Essex, to examine whether shorebird presence significantly affects sediment erodibility measured with a Cohesive Strength Meter (CSM) and microphytobenthos biomass measured using PAM fluorescence (Fo) and chlorophyll a content. We also tested for treatment effects on sediment-water nutrient fluxes [nitrate, nitrite, ammonia, phosphate and dissolved organic carbon (DOC)] during periods of both dark and light incubation. Excluding shorebirds caused statistically significant changes in regulating and provisioning ecosystem functions, including mudflat erodibility and nutrient fluxes. The presence of shorebirds lowered the sediment critical erosion threshold τcr, reduced nitrate fluxes into the sediment under illumination, lowered nitrate efflux, and reduced phosphate uptake, compared to sediments where birds were excluded. There were no significant differences in macrofauna community composition within the sediment between treatments after 45 days of bird exclusion, suggesting a direct link between shorebird presence or absence and the significant differences in biofilm-related variables. This study introduces previously unknown effects of shorebird presence on ecosystem functions within this system and highlights an area of shorebird science that could aid joint conservation and human provisioning action.