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As nearshore ecosystems are increasingly degraded by human activities, active restoration is a critical strategy in ensuring the continued provision of goods and services by coastal habitats. After being absent for nearly six decades, over 1800 ha of the foundational species eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) has been successfully reestablished in the coastal bays of the mid-western Atlantic, USA, but nothing is known about the recovery of associated animal communities in this region. Here, we determine the patterns and drivers of functional recovery in epifaunal invertebrates associated with the restored eelgrass habitat from 2001-2013. After less than a decade, the invertebrate community in the restored bed was richer, more even, and exhibited greater variation in functional traits than a nearby reference bed. Analysis of a suite of environmental and physical variables using random forests revealed these differences were primarily due to the increasing area and density of eelgrass directly attributable to ongoing restoration efforts. Based on analysis of functional traits, we propose that the rapid life histories of constituent organisms may have played a key role in their successful recovery. We also speculate that diverse epifaunal communities may have contributed to the restoration success through a predefined mutualism with eelgrass. Given that restored eelgrass now make up 32% of total seagrass cover in the mid-Atlantic coastal bays, this restoration may conserve regional biodiversity by providing new and pristine habitat, particularly given the general decline of existing eelgrass in this region.
This is revised version of the manuscript submitted concurrent with submission to a peer-reviewed journal.