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Patterns and drivers of asteroid abundances and assemblages on the continental margin of Atlantic Canada



Although continental shelf and slope environments typically exhibit high epifaunal biomass and have been subjected to increasing fishing pressure, ecological information on assemblages of non-commercial invertebrate species from subtidal and bathyal areas remains limited. Sea stars (Echinodermata: Asteroidea), which are known to influence communities through their feeding habits, have received less attention than structural taxa such as corals and sponges. To better understand the ecological roles of asteroids on continental shelves, we investigated ~30 species and assessed their distributions and co-occurrence with other benthic invertebrates on the shelf and slope of Eastern Canada. Using fisheries data and in situ video footage, we compiled a large dataset covering ~600,000 km2 that included over 350,000 individual asteroid records (37–2243 m depth). Multivariate analyses revealed geographically distinct asteroid assemblages, with a maximal overall density at 400–500 m and the highest diversity at 500–700 m. The most abundant and densely occurring species was Ctenodiscus crispatus. We found that asteroids associate with corals, sponges, bivalves, and other echinoderms, and that depth and substrate influence these assemblages. We identified species likely to affect coexisting organisms by their burrowing behavior that can disrupt epi- and infauna (C. crispatus) and through predation on ecologically important corals (Hippasteria phrygiana). In addition to providing baseline distribution and ecological information for many bathyal asteroid species in the Northwest Atlantic, this work highlights the abundance and diversified roles of asteroids within continental shelf and slope ecosystems.

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