The assemblage of organisms inhabiting the seafloor. Benthic epifauna live upon the seafloor or upon bottom objects; the so-called infauna live within the sediments of the seafloor. By far the best-studied benthos are the macrobenthos, those forms larger than 1 mm (0.04 inch), which are dominated by polychaete worms, pelecypods, anthozoans, echinoderms, sponges, ascidians, and crustaceans. Meiobenthos, those organisms between 0.1 and 1 mm in size, include polychaetes, pelecypods, copepods, ostracodes, cumaceans, nematodes, turbellarians, and foraminiferans. The microbenthos, smaller than 0.1 mm, include bacteria, diatoms, ciliates, amoeba, and flagellates. The variety and abundance of the benthos vary with latitude, depth, water temperature and salinity, locally determined conditions such as the nature of the substrate, and ecological circumstances such as predation and competition. In shallow water the rapidly changing physical environment outweighs biotic factors. Infaunal environmental conditions are less subject to change than epifaunal. The principal food sources for the benthos are plankton and organic debris from land. In shallow water, larger algae and flowering plants are important, and, where light reaches the bottom, benthic photosynthesizing diatoms are also a significant food source. Hard and sandy substrates are populated by suspension feeders such as sponges and pelecypods. Softer bottoms are dominated by deposit eaters, of which the polychaetes are the most important. Fishes, starfish, snails, cephalopods, and the larger crustaceans are important predators and scavengers.
Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica 2002