In benthic ecosystems, organic matter (OM), prokaryotes, and meiofauna represent a functional bottleneck in the energy transfer towards higher trophic levels and all respond to a variety of natural and anthropogenic disturbances. The relationships between OM and the different components of benthic communities are influenced by multiple environmental variables, which can vary across different habitats. However, analyses of these relationships have mostly been conducted by considering the different habitats separately, even though freshwater, transitional, and marine ecosystems, physically linked to each other, are not worlds apart. Here, we investigated the quantity and nutritional quality of sedimentary OM, along with the prokaryotic and meiofauna abundance, biomass, and biodiversity, in two sampling periods, corresponding to high vs. low freshwater inputs to the sea, along a river-to-sea transect. The highest values of sedimentary organic loads and their nutritional quality, prokaryotic and meiofaunal abundance, and biomass were consistently observed in lagoon systems. Differences in the prokaryotic Operational Taxonomic Units (OTUs) and meiofaunal taxonomic composition, rather than changes in the richness of taxa, were observed among the three habitats and, in each habitat, between sampling periods. Such differences were driven by either physical or trophic variables, though with differences between seasons. Overall, our results indicate that the apparent positive relationship between sedimentary OM, prokaryote and meiofaunal abundance, and biomass across the river-lagoon-sea transect under scrutiny is more the result of a pattern of specifically adapted prokaryotic and meiofaunal communities to different habitats, rather than an actually positive ‘response’ to OM enrichment. We conclude that the synoptic analysis of prokaryotes and meiofauna can provide useful information on the relative effect of organic enrichment and environmental settings across gradients of environmental continuums, including rivers, lagoons, and marine coastal ecosystems.
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