Although the effect of ecosystem engineers in structuring communities is common in several systems, it is seldom as evident as in shallow marine soft-bottoms. These systems lack abiotic three-dimensional structures but host biogenic structures that play critical roles in controlling abiotic conditions and resources. Here I review how reef-building polychaetes (RBP) engineer their environment and affect habitat quality, thus regulating community structure, ecosystem functioning, and the provision of ecosystem services in shallow waters. The analysis focuses on different engineering mechanisms, such as hard substrate production, effects on hydrodynamics, and sediment transport, and impacts mediated by filter feeding and biodeposition. Finally, I deal with landscape-level topographic alteration by RBP. In conclusion, RBP have positive impacts on diversity and abundance of many species mediated by the structure of the reef. Additionally, by feeding on phytoplankton and decreasing water turbidity, RBP can control primary production, increase light penetration, and might alleviate the effects of eutrophication affecting supporting ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling. They can also modulate cultural ecosystem services by affecting recreational activities (e.g., negative impacts on boating and angling, increased value of sites as birdwatching sites). Acknowledging the multiplicity of synergistic and antagonistic effects of RBP on ecosystems and linking changes in habitat structure, filter-feeding activities, and biodeposition to ecosystem services are essential for effective decision-making regarding their management and restoration.
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