Freita, R., Schrack, E., He, Q., Silliman, B.R., Furlong, E.B., Telles, A.C. and Costa, C.S. 2016. Consumer control of the establishment of marsh foundation plants in intertidal mudflats. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 547:79-89. (DOI: 10.3354/meps11624)
The establishment of foundation plants in bare mudflats is a critical process. While consumers are increasingly recognized to exert strong top-down control of plant performance in salt marshes, studies to date have focused on the effects of consumers on mature stands rather than on plants that are recolonizing after disturbance or where restoration has occurred. Furthermore, whether consumer-facilitated fungal infection differentially affects newly establishing plants in mudflats compared to mature stands remains poorly understood. In a salt marsh in southern Brazil, we examined the effects of herbivory by the crab Neohelice granulata and fungal infection on the survival and growth of Spartina alterniflora transplanted into mudflats. We additionally tested the effects of herbivory and fungi on newly established versus well-established stands of S. alterniflora. Highly intensive natural crab herbivory significantly reduced the development of S. alterniflora and increased its fungal infection by 50%. Light herbivory, removing only small areas of plant leaves, reduced the height growth and leaf production of directly affected tillers by about 14 to 18%, and both newly and well-established, clonally integrated stands of S. alterniflora allocated energy towards the formation of new tillers. While herbivory facilitated fungal infection and subsequent fungal damage in leaves, no significant effects of fungicide treatment or its interactions with crab grazing on S. alterniflora growth were detected, suggesting a saprophytic rather than a pathogenic role of fungi in this 3-species interaction. Here, we found that marsh grasses transplanted for restoration or those colonizing disturbance-generated mudflats may be facilitated by protection against consumers.
We documented the frequency and effect on live biomass of five different types of disturbance over 14 years in creekbank and mid-marsh zones of eight salt marshes dominated by Spartina alterniflora in Georgia, USA. Wrack (floating debris) and creekbank slumping were the most common disturbances at the creekbank, and snails were the most common disturbance agent in the mid-marsh. Disturbance frequency varied among sites due to differences in plot elevation and landscape position. Wrack disturbance at the creekbank was positively correlated with plot elevation, and both initial slumping and terminal slumping of creekbank plots were negatively correlated with plot elevation. Wrack disturbance at the creekbank and snail disturbance in the mid-marsh were also most common at barrier island vs. interior marshes. Disturbance varied up to 14-fold among years. Wrack disturbance at the creekbank was negatively correlated with river discharge and sea level, and initial slumping of creekbank plots was also negatively correlated with sea level. The different disturbance types varied in their effects on end-of-year standing plant biomass. At the creekbank, wrack disturbance reduced biomass in affected plots by ~46%, but slumping did not affect biomass until the plot was totally lost. In the mid-marsh, slumping and wrack were not important disturbances, but snail disturbance reduced biomass in affected plots by ~70%. In addition, abiotic conditions (river discharge, maximum monthly temperature, sea level, and precipitation) strongly affected year-to-year variation in biomass. Across the entire landscape, fewer than a quarter of the plots on average were disturbed, and disturbance reduced overall standing biomass by ~18% in the creekbank zone and ~3% in the mid-marsh zone. Our results indicate that wrack has fairly strong effects on end-of-year biomass at the creekbank. Overall, however, variation in abiotic conditions among years had stronger effects on end-of-year standing biomass in both marsh zones than did disturbance.
Craft, C.B., Herbert, E., Li, F., Smith, D., Schubauer-Berigan, J.P., Widney, S., Angelini, C., Pennings, S.C., Medeiros, P.M., Byers, J. and Alber, M. 2016. Climate change and the fate of coastal wetlands. Wetland Science and Practice. 33(3):70-73.
O’Connell, J. and Alber, M. 2016. A smart classifier for extracting environmental data from digital image time-series: Applications for PhenoCam data in a tidal salt marsh. Environmental Modelling & Software. 84:134-139.
PhenoCams are part of a national network of automated digital cameras used to assess vegetation phenology transitions. Effectively analyzing PhenoCam time-series involves eliminating scenes with poor solar illumination or high cover of non-target objects such as water. We created a smart classifier to process images from the “GCESapelo” PhenoCam, which photographs a regularly-flooded salt marsh. The smart classifier, written in R, assigns pixels to target (vegetation) and non-target (water, shadows, fog and clouds) classes, allowing automated identification of optimal scenes for evaluating phenology. When compared to hand-classified validation images, the smart classifier identified scenes with optimal vegetation cover with 96% accuracy and other object classes with accuracies ranging from 86 to 100%. Accuracy for estimating object percent cover ranged from 74 to 100%. Pixel-classification with the smart classifier outperformed previous approaches (i.e. indices based on average color content within ROIs) and reduced variance in phenology index time-series. It can be readily adapted for other applications.
Rapid, global, anthropogenic alteration of food webs in ecosystems necessitates a better understanding of how consumers regulate natural communities. We provide a global synthesis of consumer control of vegetation in coastal wetlands, where the domineering role of physical factors such as nutrient and salinity, rather than consumers, has been emphasized for decades. Using a data set of 1748 measures of consumer effects reported in 443 experiments/observations on all continents except Antarctica, we examine the generality of consumer control in salt marshes and mangroves globally. Our analyses show that salt marsh herbivores, including insects, snails, crabs, waterfowl, small mammals, and livestock, generally and often strongly suppress plant survival, aboveground biomass, and height, while their effects on plant density, belowground biomass, reproduction, and cover are more variable. These effects occur in forbs, grasses, and shrubs, and in both seedlings and adult plants. Herbivores additionally affect plant nutrient stoichiometry, and mediate plant interactions, though their effects on plant diversity are less consistent. Higher trophic levels also affect plants, as predators facilitate plant growth through trophic cascades that suppress grazer abundance and grazing rate. In mangroves, there are also signs of consumer control, though the relatively few studies available have often focused on mangrove propagules and seedlings rather than adults. Our analyses further reveal that the strength of consumer control is regulated by many physical factors. Nutrient, disturbance, and flooding, for example, amplify the negative effects of herbivores. Along latitudinal gradients, increased temperature enhances the negative effects of ectothermic herbivores, but has no effect on those of endothermic herbivores. Consumer control of coastal plants is also apparent across study methodologies: in field and laboratory settings, in observational studies, in consumer exclusion and addition experiments, in natural and transplanted plants, and in experiments of various durations. The role of consumer control in coastal vegetation worldwide highlights the need to better recognize and theoretically conceptualize both top-down and bottom-up forcing and their interactions in coastal wetlands. Improved understanding and conservation of coastal wetlands will only occur if we incorporate what the science has revealed: trophic feedbacks are an important and pervasive determinant of coastal plant communities.
Liu, W., Maung-Douglass, K., Strong, D.R., Pennings, S.C. and Zhang, Y. 2016. Geographical variation in vegetative growth and sexual reproduction of the invasive Spartina alterniflora in China. Journal of Ecology. 104:173-181. (DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12487)
- Phenotypic variation plays an important role in successful plant invasions. The spread of invasive species over large geographic ranges may be facilitated if plants can match their phenotype to local abiotic conditions. Spartina alterniflora, native to the United States, was introduced into China in 1979 and has spread over 19ᵒ of latitude along the eastern coast of China.
- We studied patterns in vegetative growth and sexual reproduction of S. alterniflora at 22 sites at 11 geographic locations over a latitudinal gradient of ˜2000 km from Tanggu (39.05°N, high latitude) to Leizhou (20.90°N, low latitude) in China. We further evaluated the basis of phenotypic differences by growing plants from across the range in a common garden for 2 growing seasons.
- We found distinct latitudinal clines in plant height, shoot density and sexual reproduction across latitude. Some traits exhibited linear relationships with latitude; others exhibited hump-shaped relationships. We identified correlations between plant traits and abiotic conditions such as mean annual temperature, growing degree days, tidal range and soil nitrogen content. However, geographic variation in all but one trait disappeared in the common garden, indicating that variation largely due to phenotypic plasticity. Only a slight tendency for latitudinal variation in seed set persisted for 2 years in the common garden, suggesting that plants may be evolving genetic clines for this trait.
- Synthesis. The rapid spread of Spartina alterniflora (S. alterniflora) in China has probably been facilitated by phenotypic plasticity in growth and reproductive traits. We found little evidence for the evolution of genetic clines in China, even though these exist for some traits in the native range. The considerable variation among clones, within provenances, that persisted in the common garden suggests a potential for the evolution of geographic clines in the future. Low fecundity of low-latitude S. alterniflora populations in China might result in a slower spread at low latitudes, but S. alterniflora is likely to continue to spread rapidly at high latitudes in China and into the Korean peninsula.
Angelini, C., Griffin, J.N., van de Koppel, J., Lamers, L.P.M., Smolders, A.J. P., Derkens-Hooijberg, M., van der Heide, T., and Silliman, B.R. 2016. A Keystone Mutualism underpins resilience of a coastal ecosystem to drought. Nature Communications, doi:10.1038/ncomms12473. Published 18 August 2016.
Droughts are increasing in severity and frequency, yet the mechanisms that strengthen ecosystem resilience to this stress remain poorly understood. Here, we test whether positive interactions in the form of a mutualism between mussels and dominant cordgrass in salt marshes enhance ecosystem resistance to and recovery from drought. Surveys spanning 250 km of southeastern US coastline reveal spatially dispersed mussel mounds increased cordgrass survival during severe drought by 5- to 25-times. Surveys and mussel addition experiments indicate this positive effect of mussels on cordgrass was due to mounds enhancing water storage and reducing soil salinity stress. Observations and models then demonstrate that surviving cordgrass patches associated with mussels function as nuclei for vegetative re-growth and, despite covering only 0.1–12% of die-offs, markedly shorten marsh recovery periods. These results indicate that mutualisms, in supporting stress-resistant patches, can play a disproportionately large, keystone role in enhancing ecosystem resilience to climatic extremes.
O’Donnell, J.P. R. and J. F. Schalles. 2016. Examination of abiotic drivers and their influence on Spartina alterniflora biomass over a twenty-eight year period using Landsat 5 TM satellite imagery of the central Georgia Coast. Remote Sensing 8: 477-499
We examined the influence of abiotic drivers on inter-annual and phenological patterns of aboveground biomass for Marsh Cordgrass, Spartina alterniflora, on the Central Georgia Coast. The linkages between drivers and plant response via soil edaphic factors are captured in our graphical conceptual model. We used geospatial techniques to scale up in situ measurements of aboveground S. alterniflora biomass to landscape level estimates using 294 Landsat 5 TM scenes acquired between 1984 and 2011. For each scene we extracted data from the same 63 sampling polygons, containing 1222 pixels covering about 1.1 million m2. Using univariate and multiple regression tests, we compared Landsat derived biomass estimates for three S. alterniflora size classes against a suite of abiotic drivers. River discharge, total precipitation, minimum temperature, and mean sea level had positive relationships with and best explained biomass for all dates. Additional results, using seasonally binned data, indicated biomass was responsive to changing combinations of variables across the seasons. Our 28-year analysis revealed aboveground biomass declines of 33%, 35%, and 39% for S. alterniflora tall, medium, and short size classes, respectively. This decline correlated with drought frequency and severity trends and coincided with marsh die-backs events and increased snail herbivory in the second half of the study period.