• Artificial substratum;
  • complex physical structure;
  • East Pacific Rise;
  • productivity;
  • Riftia pachyptila;
  • species diversity


Habitat created or modified by the physical architecture of large or spatially dominant species plays an important role in structuring communities in a variety of terrestrial, aquatic, and marine habitats. At hydrothermal vents, the giant tubeworm Riftia pachyptila forms large and dense aggregations in a spatially and temporally variable environment. The density and diversity of smaller invertebrates is higher in association with aggregations of R. pachyptila than on the surrounding basalt rock seafloor. Artificial substrata designed to mimic R. pachyptila aggregations were deployed along a gradient of productivity to test the hypothesis that high local species diversity is maintained by the provision of complex physical structure in areas of diffuse hydrothermal flow. After 1 year, species assemblages were compared among artificial aggregations in low-, intermediate-, and high-productivity zones and compared to natural aggregations of R. pachyptila from the same site. Hydrothermal vent fauna colonized every artificial aggregation, and both epifaunal density and species richness were highest in areas of high chemosynthetic primary production. The species richness was also similar between natural aggregations of R. pachyptila and artificial aggregations in intermediate- and high-productivity zones, suggesting that complex physical structure alone can support local species diversity in areas of chemosynthetic primary production. Differences in the community composition between natural and artificial aggregations reflect the variability in microhabitat conditions and biological interactions associated with hydrothermal fluid flux at low-temperature hydrothermal vents. Moreover, these local ecological factors may further contribute to the maintenance of regional species diversity in hydrothermal vent communities on the East Pacific Rise.