Seagrass beds have higher biomass, abundance, diversity and productivity of benthic organisms than unvegetated sediments. However, to date most studies have analysed only the macrofaunal component and ignored the abundant meiofauna present in seagrass meadows. This study was designed to test if meiobenthic communities, especially the free-living nematodes, differed between seagrass beds and unvegetated sediments. Sediment samples from beds of the eelgrass Zostera capricorni and nearby unvegetated sediments were collected in three estuaries along the coast of New South Wales, Australia.
Results showed that sediments below the seagrass were finer, with a higher content of organic material and were less oxygenated than sediments without seagrass. Univariate measures of the fauna (i.e. abundance, diversity and taxa richness of total meiofauna and nematode assemblages) did not differ between vegetated and unvegetated sediments. However multivariate analysis of meiofaunal higher taxa showed significant differences between the two habitats, largely due to the presence and absence of certain taxa. Amphipods, tanaidacea, ostracods, hydrozoans and isopods occurred mainly in unvegetated sediments, while kinorhyncs, polychaetes, gastrotrichs and turbellarians were more abundant in vegetated sediments. Regarding the nematode assemblages, 32.4% of the species were restricted to Z. capricorni, and 25% only occurred in unvegetated sediments, this suggests that each habitat is characterized by a particular suite of species. Epistrate feeding nematodes were more abundant in seagrass beds, and it is suggested that they graze on the microphytobenthos which accumulates underneath the seagrass. Most of the genera that characterized these estuarine unvegetated sediments are also commonly found
on exposed sandy beaches. This may be explained by the fact that Australian estuaries have very little input of freshwater and experience marine conditions for most of the year. This study demonstrates that the seagrass and unvegetated sediments have discrete meiofaunal communities, with little overlap in species composition.