Within the frame of different research projects, a large number of sites at the Belgian Continental Shelf (BCS) have been sampled for the macrobenthos between 1994 and 2000. These samples cover a diverse range of habitats: from the sandy beaches to the open sea, from the gullies between the sandbanks to the tops of the sandbanks, and from clay to coarse sandy sediments. To investigate the large-scale spatial distribution of the macrobenthos of the Belgian Continental Shelf, the data of all these research projects-728 samples-were combined and analysed. By means of several multivariate techniques, 10 sample groups with similar macrobenthic assemblage structure were distinguished. Each sample group is found in a particular physico-chemical environment and has a specific species composition. Four sample groups differ drastically, both in habitat and species composition, and are considered to represent four macrobenthic communities: (1) the muddy fine sand Abra alba-Mysella bidentata community is characterized by high densities and diversity; (2) the Nephtys cirrosa community occurs in well-sorted sandy sediments and is characterized by low densities and diversity; (3) very low densities and diversity typify the Ophelia limacina-Glycera lapidum community, which is found in coarse sandy sediments and (4) the Eurydice pulchra-Scolelepis squamata community is typical for the upper intertidal zone of sandy beaches. These macrobenthic communities are not isolated from each other, but are linked through six transitional species assemblages. The transition between the A. alba-M. bidentata community and the N. cirrosa community is characterized by a reduction in the mud content and is dominated by Magelona johnstoni. The transition between the N. cirrosa and the O. limacina-G. lapidum community is distinctive by decreasing densities and coincides with a gradual transition between medium and coarse sandy sediments. From the N. cirrosa to the E. pulchra-S. squamata community, transitional species assemblages related to the transition from the subtidal to the intertidal environment were found. Each community or transitional species assemblages was found over a specific range along the onshore-offshore gradient, four types can be discerned: (1) almost restricted to the near-shore area, but possible wider distribution; (2) distributed over the full onshore-offshore gradient,- (3) restricted to the near-shore area and (4) restricted to the sandy beach environment. The diversity pattern on the BCS follows this division, with species rich and poor assemblages in the near-shore area to only species poor assemblages more offshore. The distribution and diversity patterns are linked to the habitat type, distinguished by median grain size and mud content. (C) 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.