Effects of bridge shading on estuarine marsh benthic invertebrate community structure and function.
The effect of bridge shading on estuarine marsh food webs was assessed by comparing benthic invertebrate communities beneath seven highway bridges with marshes outside of bridge-affected areas (reference marshes). We used light attenuation and height-width ratio (HW ratio), which takes into account the two main bridge characteristics that determine the degree of shading, to quantify the impact of shading on invertebrate communities. Low bridges, with HW ratio <0.7 and light attenuation greater than 85-90%, had benthic invertebrate densities and diversity that were significantly lower than reference marshes. Density of benthic invertebrates at low bridges was 25-52% (29,685-72,920 organisms/m(2)) of densities measured in adjacent reference marshes (119,329-173,351 organisms/m(2)). Likewise, there were fewer taxa under low bridges (5.8/11.35 cm(2) core) as compared to the reference marshes (9.0/11.35 cm(2) core). Density of numerically dominant taxa (e.g., oligochaetes and nematodes) as well as surface- and subsurface deposit feeders also were reduced under low bridges. Decreased invertebrate density, diversity, dominant taxa, and alterations of trophic feeding groups beneath low bridges was correlated with diminished above- and below-ground macrophyte biomass that presumably resulted in fewer food resources and available refuges from predators. With a greater knowledge of bridge shading effects, bridge construction and design may be improved to reduce the impacts on estuarine benthic invertebrate communities and overall ecosystem structure and function.