Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

Biology (Cell Biology, Microbiology, Molecular Biology)

Major Professor

James R. Garey, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

Susan S. Bell, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Pamela Hallock-Muller, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kathleen M. Scott, Ph.D.


biocomplexity, shallow-water hydrothermal vents, environmental gradients, benthic infaunal communities, eukaryotic diversity


Shallow-water hydrothermal vents occur world-wide in regions of volcanic activity. The vents located at Tutum Bay, Ambitle Island, Papua New Guinea are unique in that the vent fluids and surrounding sediments contain some of the highest concentrations of arsenic in a natural system. This study addresses the effects of the vent system on the benthic communities, focusing on the eukaryotes, macrofauna, meiofauna and bacteria.

Samples were collected in November 2003 and May/June 2005. Analysis of the 2003 macrofaunal samples indicated that pH, rather than arsenic was influencing the benthic community, and that the hydrothermal influence occurred at a greater distance than expected. Results of more intensive sampling carried out in 2005 are the primary focus of this dissertation.

The pore water and sediment characteristics revealed distinct physical habitats corresponding with distance from the vent. There was a trend of decreasing temperature and arsenic concentration and increasing salinity and pH with distance from the vent. The vent sediment was poorly sorted volcanic gravel, while sediments along the transect showed a gradient from fine, well sorted volcanic sands to coarser carbonate sands farther away.

The macrofauna showed a trend of increasing diversity with distance from the vent and similar taxa were present in both the 2003 and 2005 samples. The vent community was dominated by the polychaete Capitella cf. capitata. The inner transect

from 30 m to 140 m had low diversity. Dominant taxa included thalassinid shrimp and the amphipod Platyischnopus sp.A. The 180 m to 300 m sites had significantly higher diversity. The Danlum Bay reference site had relatively higher diversity than the nearshore transect sites and was dominated by deposit feeding polychaetes. Macrofaunal community structure was influenced by the sediment characteristics, notably by CaCO3 content, sorting and median grain size.

The meiofaunal community also showed changes with distance from the vent. Chromadorid nematodes were dominant at the vent site and were a major component of the meiofauna at most sites, along with copepods. The meiofaunal community at the reference site showed greater similarity to the vent community and both sites had low abundances. Nematodes were more abundant than copepods near the vent, but copepods were more abundant farther offshore and at the reference site. Meiofaunal community structure was influenced primarily by the pore water temperature and salinity. Biological interactions with the macrofaunal community through physical disturbance and predation may also influence the meiofaunal community.

The molecular analysis of eukaryotic and bacterial diversity also revealed changes with distance from the vent. The 0 m and reference sites grouped together due to the presence of fungal sequences and the 140 m and 300 m sites grouped together due to a common molluscan sequence. Metazoans and fungi dominated the eukaryote sequences. The most abundant eukaryotic OTUs included fungi matching Paecilomyces sp. and Cladosporium cladosporioides and metazoans matching Viscosia viscosa (Nematoda) and Astarte castanea

represented by 24 phyla and was dominated by Actinobacteria and γ-Proteobacteria. More bacterial phyla were present near the vent, while more overall OTUs were found at the intermediate sites along the transect. The most distant site had much lower diversity dominated by Firmicutes.

The macrofaunal community had the strongest correlation with environmental variables. Comparison between the meiofauna and the metazoan sequences showed the proportion of nematodes found in both datasets were comparable, but the meiofauna analysis found a higher proportion of arthropods, while the molecular results were disproportionally high for platyhelminthes.

Overall, the vents increased the complexity of the system by creating unique habitats. The extreme environment created by the hydrothermal activity maintained the surrounding habitat at an early successional stage colonized by a few opportunistic species. There was a gradation in the benthic communities away from the vent towards a more carbonate based climax community. The low pH environment had an effect on the sediment composition, which in turn influenced the benthic community. These findings can serve as a model for studying the potential effects of ocean acidification and climate change on benthic communities and marine biocomplexity.