Human threats to sandy beaches: a meta-analysis of ghost crabs illustrates global anthropogenic impacts
Schlacher, Thomas A.
Connolly, Rod M.
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Beach and coastal dune systems are increasingly subjected to a broad range of anthropogenic pressures that on many shorelines require significant conservation and mitigation interventions. But these interventions require reliable data on the severity and frequency of adverse ecological impacts. Such evidence is often obtained by measuring the response of 'indicator species'. Ghost crabs are the largest invertebrates inhabiting tropical and subtropical sandy shores and are frequently used to assess human impacts on ocean beaches. Here we present the first global meta-analysis of these impacts, and analyse the design properties and metrics of studies using ghost-crabs in their assessment. This was complemented by a gap analysis to identify thematic areas of anthropogenic pressures on sandy beach ecosystems that are under-represented in the published literature. Our meta-analysis demonstrates a broad geographic reach, encompassing studies on shores of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the South China Sea. It also reveals what are, arguably, two major limitations: i) the near-universal use of proxies (i.e. burrow counts to estimate abundance) at the cost of directly measuring biological traits and bio-markers in the organism itself; and ii) descriptive or correlative study designs that rarely extend beyond a simple 'compare and contrast approach', and hence fail to identify the mechanistic cause(s) of observed contrasts. Evidence for a historically narrow range of assessed pressures (i.e., chiefly urbanisation, vehicles, beach nourishment, and recreation) is juxtaposed with rich opportunities for the broader integration of ghost crabs as a model taxon in studies of disturbance and impact assessments on ocean beaches. Tangible advances will most likely occur where ghost crabs provide foci for experiments that test specific hypotheses associated with effects of chemical, light and acoustic pollution, as well as the consequences of climate change (e.g. species range shifts).