The quantitative importance and composition of protozoan communities was investigated in sandy and silty intertidal sediments of a polyhaline and a freshwater site in the Schelde estuary. Total biomass of the protozoans studied, integrated over the upper 4 cm of the sediment, ranged from 41 to 597 mg C m-2 and was in the same order of magnitude at the polyhaline and the freshwater intertidal site. Nanoheterotrophs were the dominant protozoans, in terms of both abundance and biomass. Ciliate abundances appeared to be largely determined by physical constraints, namely, the amount of interstitial space and hydrodynamic disturbances. It remains unclear which factors control nanoheterotrophic abundances and biomasses, which showed comparatively little seasonal and between-site fluctuations. Salinity differences were clearly reflected in the protozoan community composition. The dominant role of sessile ciliates is a unique feature of sediments in the freshwater tidal reaches, which can be attributed to the dynamic nature of sedimentation and resuspension processes associated with the maximum turbidity zone. Based on biomass ratios and estimated weight-specific metabolic rates, protozoa possibly accounted for ~29 to 96% of the estimated combined metabolic rate of protozoan and metazoan consumers at our sampling stations in late spring/early autumn. The contribution of protozoa to this combined metabolic rate was higher at the sandy than at the silty stations and was mainly accounted for by the nanoheterotrophs. These data emphasize the potential importance of small protozoa in sediments and suggest that protozoa are important components of benthic food webs.
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