The most biologically and geochemically active marine sediments are characterized by steep chemical gradients within the top centimeters of sediment (Berner, 1980). A common feature of these environments is disruptions of surface sediments by both physical and biotic forces. Growth and mortality rates for new recruits are affected by many of these surface perturbations. At the same time, these disturbances also impose a discontinuity in concentration across the sediment-water interface, and accordingly, a change in surface chemistry. In this paper we present evidence that the cue used by juveniles to distinguish between recently disturbed and undisturbed surfaces may be disruption of geochemical gradients that are typical of nearshore benthic systems. New juveniles exposed to ammonium concentrations typical of disturbed surface sediments exhibit behaviors consistent with rejection of the habitat. Conversely, new juveniles placed onto sediments containing ammonium levels typical of undisturbed surficial sediments rapidly initiate burrowing activity, a sign of "acceptability." We also present a numerical model, which assesses the dynamics of small-scale chemical shifts that accompany sediment disruption, to determine (a) what is the magnitude of surface chemistry changes associated with disturbance (i.e. what is the signal strength)? and (b) what are the spatial and temporal scales associated with the return to the undisturbed condition ("recovery")? Model results show that the signal strength, and the return to "acceptable" conditions, are strongly influenced by the initial gradient. Model predictions of the time required to "recover" indicate that times to recovery are longer than the interval between disturbance events, but are of the same temporal scale (minutes to hours). Thus, our results suggest that the dynamics of surficial gradients provide a strong signal over appropriate time scales that may reveal the intensity of disturbance and the likelihood of mortality for juveniles. As such, transport-reaction processes which govern porewater concentrations in surficial sediments may also play a role in recruitment processes.