Integrating ecology with biogeography using landscape characteristics: a case study of subtidal habitat across continental Australia


*Sean D. Connell, Southern Seas Ecology Laboratories, DP 418, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, SA 5005, Australia.


Aim  We aimed to redress a current limitation of local ecological studies (i.e. piecemeal information on specific taxa) by integrating existing ecological knowledge with quantifiable patterns in primary habitat (i.e. composition, distribution and cover) from local to continental scales. By achieving this aim, we sought to provide a biogeographical framework for the interpretation of variation in the ecology of, and threats to, subtidal rocky landscapes.

Location  The subtidal rocky coast of continental Australia, with longitudinal comparisons spanning > 4000 km of southern coast (115°03′ E–153°60′ E) between latitudes of 33°05′ S and 35°36′ S, and latitudinal comparisons across 26°40′ S to 37°08′ S of eastern Australia.

Methods  The frequency and size of patches of major benthic habitat were quantified to indicate contemporary function (ecology) and to establish patterns that may result from contrasting regional-scale processes (biogeography). This was achieved by quantifying the composition and patchiness of key subtidal habitats across the continent and relating them to the known ecology of subsets of locations in each region. A nested design of several spatial scales (1000s, 100s, 10–1 km) was adopted to distinguish patterns at local through to biogeographical scales.

Results  We show biogeography (in terms of longitude and latitude) to have a fundamental influence on the patterns of abundance and composition of subtidal habitats across regional (1000s of kilometres) to local (10s of kilometres to metres) scales. Across the continent, the most fundamental patterns related to (1) the proportion of rock covered by kelp forests, as related to particular functional groups of herbivores, and (2) the small-scale heterogeneity (metres) that characterizes these forests.

Main conclusions  We interpret these results within a framework of alternative processes known to maintain habitat heterogeneity across these regions (e.g. productivity versus consumption as shapers of habitat structure). These interpretations illustrate how regional differences in ecological patterns and processes can create contradictory outcomes for the management of natural resources. We suggest that researchers and managers of natural resources alike may benefit from understanding local issues (e.g. the effects of fishing and its synergies with water pollution) in their biogeographical contexts.