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Studies of seabed life, in particular benthic structure and function on the New Zealand continental shelf and upper slope.

Seabed habitats of the continental margin are remarkable for their invertebrate biodiversity. Nearly every animal phylum is found here, and ranging from large colonial animals that live attached to the seabed surface to minute worms burrowing into the sediments below. These organisms comprise integral components of shelf and slope ecosystems.

Our research tackles at a range of topics concerned with the structure and functioning of benthic assemblages. For instance, how does community structure relate to major environmental gradients, such as differences in topography and composition of seabed substrata, and patterns of productivity of the overlying water column? What are the links between benthic habitat characteristics and associated biodiversity? And what are the effects and implications of human disturbance to these offshore benthic systems?

Otago waters provide excellent opportunities for such studies given the wide range of shelf and upper slope benthic habitats and oceanographic features within relatively easy reach. Studies farther afield, particularly on the Chatham Rise, are being carried out in collaboration with NIWA.


  • Dr Katrin Berkenbusch, Adjunct Lecturer
    Benthic ecology, animal-sediment interactions, bathyal meiofauna
  • Dr Daniel Leduc, Postdoctoral Fellow
    Deep-sea meiofauna, ecology and systematics of benthic nematodes
  • Anna Wood, PhD student
    Habitat complexity and biodiversity of frame-building bryozoans
  • Norliana Mohd Rosli, PhD student
    Ecology of meiofauna from the New Zealand continental margin
  • Niharika Long, MSc student
    Benthic community structure and environmental drivers on the Monowai Seamount
  • Bryce Peebles, MSc student
    Macrobenthos of Otago submarine canyons

Research projects

Current research projects mainly involving colleagues at NIWA and postgraduate students, and cover a wide range of topics.

For example, studies examining benthic-pelagic coupling are concerned with differences in the quality and quantity of biogenic flux associated with the major water masses that bathe New Zealand's continental margin, and the implications of such differences for structure and function of major components of the benthos (notably meiofauna and macrofauna). Much of this work, carried out with NIWA, has focused on the Chatham Rise and the influence of the overlying Subtropical Front as a zone of enhanced productivity.

We are interested also in patterns of benthic biodiversity and the underlying environmental drivers. These studies span a range of spatial scales on the New Zealand continental margin from the local influence of habitat-forming epifauna of the Otago shelf on associated macrobenthos to large-scale patterns of diversity as evidenced by meiobenthos of the New Zealand continental slope.

A particular focus within the research on meiobenthos concerns the distributional ecology and biosystematics of the free-living nematodes inhabiting continental slope sediments. These minute worms are extraordinarily diverse and very important contributors to benthic secondary production.

The upper slope off the Otago Peninsula is incised by a series of submarine canyons, and we have recently started a more detailed study of the macrobenthos of this interesting habitat.


Otago, and the New Zealand region in general, offer exciting opportunities for research into continental margin benthos. A diverse range of benthic habitats and oceanographic factors occur, sometimes within relatively short distance. Also, many aspects of the region's benthic ecology are still poorly known so there is wide scope for research opportunities, and for making interesting new discoveries.

Important facilities include the Department's Portobello Marine Laboratory and its Research Vessel Polaris II.

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