Marine Functional Connectivity
MFC in a nutshell
Marine Functional Connectivity (MFC) refers to all the movements of marine organisms (lifetime dispersal, but also diurnal or seasonal migrations) that results in the exchange of individuals (i.e. species, functional traits, genes, biomass or energy), at sea and at the sea-continent interface.
In ecology, Connectivity refers to how the movement of living organisms and the flow of nutrients and materials are facilitated (or not) by the landscape. This broad ecological concept includes two, intertwined components:
Structural Connectivity, a notion purely related to the physical characteristics of the landscape, measuring its heterogeneity and structuring (e.g. ice cover, marine currents, chemical barriers),
Functional Connectivity, which represents all the movements of organisms that result in the exchange of genes, biomass or energy between heterogeneous habitat patches. These are either caused, facilitated or hampered by Structural Connectivity patterns.
While human activities and global change often result in changes in Structural Connectivity, it is Functional Connectivity that determines biodiversity patterns and the demographic, ecological and evolutionary interdependency of populations and communities, as well as the flow of energy and organic matter amongst sites.
MFC assessments allow understanding the complex relationships between marine species or communities and the heterogeneous habitats or regions they inhabit, but also the fluxes of nutrients and materials at sea. Therefore, gathering effective knowledge on MFC can greatly improve our ability to refine management and conservation strategies for the oceans. This is challenging though, because marine ecosystems are particularly difficult to access and survey.
So far, MFC research mostly focused on species-specific approaches, primarily measuring and modelling population dispersal patterns. However, recent methods linking species movements and trait expression to ecosystem functions now allow the emergence of an entire new field of research, purely dedicated to MFC, its drivers and its evolution.
Due to the critical role played by MFC in modulating the ecological effects of environmental change on marine species, the functioning of ecosystems and delivery of the services that they provide, developing this emerging field of research will improve our understanding of the Oceans and our ability to forecast their future.