In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Benthic Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Foundational Works
  • Latitudinal/Global Scales

Ecology Benthic Ecology
Ron Etter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0151


Benthic ecology is a large and very diverse field that explores how organisms that live on the ocean floor interact with and influence the biotic and abiotic environment. Studies occur in a wide variety of distinct major habitats, including coral reefs, kelp forests, estuaries, salt marshes, sediment and rocky bottoms, intertidal, subtidal, deep sea, and hydrothermal vents. This article is focused on benthic community ecology and draws on research from the various habitat types. The structure and dynamics of benthic communities reflect the integration of ecological and evolutionary processes operating across a broad spectrum of spatial and temporal scales. Benthic community ecology strives to quantify how the relative importance and interaction of these different processes change with scale to control the abundance, distribution, and dynamics of species and the assembly, structure, and function of benthic communities. Small-scale processes (e.g., competition, predation, and disturbance) dominated early benthic ecological research because they could be manipulated and controlled experimentally. More recent empirical and theoretical work indicated that processes operating on much larger spatial and temporal scales play important roles in shaping the species composition and dynamics of local communities. Regional-scale processes integrate, modulate, and interact with local- and landscape-level processes operating within the various habitats that comprise a region. Local and regional dynamics are thus interdependent and strongly influenced by the relative abundance of habitats (landscape heterogeneity) within a region, the productivity of different habitat patches, and the connectivity among those patches. This realization led to the development of landscape, metapopulation, metacommunity, and metaecosystem ecology that explicitly address the interaction of processes operating on different scales. At larger regional scales, community assembly, the relative importance of bottom-up and top-down processes, and the nature, intensity, and scale of interactions can shift in response to environmental gradients. Much contemporary work focuses on understanding how differences in biotic and abiotic context mediate changes in species interactions, and ultimately community assembly, to develop integrative models of ecosystem structure, function, and dynamics and to better predict how environmental changes might alter benthic ecosystems and their services.

General Overviews

The resources listed below provide introductions and overviews of various aspects of marine communities and the physical and biological processes that influence their ecology. Barnes and Hughes 2006 and Connell and Gillanders 2007 provide relatively recent general and very readable introductions to the field of marine ecology, but they are not strictly focused on community processes. At a more advanced and focused level, Bertness, et al. 2001, an edited volume, provides a detailed assessment of the field of marine community ecology and the various processes that are thought to regulate communities in a wide variety of habitats and ecosystems. The chapter by Denny and Wethey details the pervasive effects of physical forces on marine communities, which are often ignored in basic texts on marine ecology or biology. Bertness, et al. 2014 provides an update to Bertness, et al. 2001 that covers recent developments in the field. Gage and Tyler 1992 (deep sea), Gray and Elliott 2009 (soft sediments), and van Dover 2000 (hydrothermal vents) provide comprehensive overviews of specific ecosystems or habitat types that are widespread, and they include discussions of the processes that influence the structure, function, and dynamics of communities.

  • Barnes, R. S. K., and R. N. Hughes. 2006. An introduction to marine ecology. 3d ed. Chichester, UK: John Wiley.

    A very readable introductory text that covers the basic ecology of many of the major marine biomes.

  • Bertness, M. D., J. F. Bruno, B. R. Silliman, and J. J. Stachowicz, eds. 2014. Marine community ecology and conservation. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    An update to Bertness, et al. 2001 that provides an overview of recent developments in the field and includes new chapters that cover more contemporary issues in marine ecology and conservation.

  • Bertness, M. D., S. D. Gaines, and M. E. Hay, eds. 2001. Marine community ecology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

    An influential edited volume by some of the leading authorities in marine ecology exploring the physical and ecological forces that influence the assembly, structure, and dynamics of marine communities. The book covers a variety of different habitats and ecosystems as well as important conservation issues. The Denny and Wethey chapter in particular provides an excellent and lucid overview of the physical processes (flow and thermal) that influence benthic communities.

  • Connell, S. D., and B. Gillanders. 2007. Marine ecology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An overview of the biology, ecology, biogeography, and conservation of Australian marine communities and ecosystems.

  • Cowen, Robert K. ed. 2007. Special issue: Marine Population Connectivity. Oceanography 20.3.

    An important series of papers that provide an excellent overview of the role of larval dispersal and connectivity in marine communities. The various papers consider how to measure larval dispersal and connectivity, estimate connectivity using bio-physical modeling as well as treating the implications and applications of connectivity to conservation.

  • Gage, J. D., and P. A. Tyler. 1992. Deep-sea biology: A natural history of organisms at the deep-sea floor. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Provides a detailed and comprehensive overview of the deep sea and the biology, ecology, and evolution of the fauna.

  • Gray, J. S., and M. Elliott. 2009. Ecology of marine sediments: From science to management. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A detailed and informative synthesis of the biology, physiology, ecology, and management of the organisms that inhabit soft-sediment ecosystems, which cover most of the seafloor.

  • Hay, M. E. 2009. Marine chemical ecology: chemical signals and cues structure marine populations, communities, and ecosystems. Annual Review of Marine Science 1:193–212.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.marine.010908.163708

    An important overview of the role of chemicals in marine ecology. Chemicals mediate a wide variety of ecological interactions, influence recruitment and alter physiological processes strongly affecting population structure, community organization, and ecosystem function.

  • Norse, E., and L. B. Crowder, eds. 2005. Marine conservation biology: The science of maintaining the sea’s biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press.

    An edited volume providing a broad synthesis of marine conservation issues by the leading authorities in marine conservation. Foreward by Michael E. Soulé.

  • van Dover, C. L. 2000. The ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    An excellent overview of hydrothermal vents and the fauna that inhabit these unusual ecosystems. The book covers the physical environment, the chemosynthetic trophic foundations, and the physiology, ecology, and evolution of the fauna.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.