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How will warming affect the salt marsh foundation species Spartina patens and its ecological role?

Abstract

Foundation species structure environments and create refuge from environmental stress. In New England high salt marsh, the grass Spartina patens is a foundation species that reduces salinity, anoxia, desiccation, and thermal stresses through canopy shading and root proliferation. In a factorial S. patens-removal and warming field experiment, foundation species removal strongly impacted every aspect of the community, reiterating the important role of the foundation species S. patens in the high marsh. Given this central role, we hypothesized that facilitation by the foundation species would be even more important under warmer conditions by ameliorating more severe thermal stress. However, the ecological role of S. patens was unaffected by experimental warming, and, independent of the presence of the foundation species, warming had only weak effects on the salt marsh ecological community. Only the foundation species itself responded strongly to warming, by significantly increasing aboveground production in warmed plots. Apparently, amelioration of thermal stress is not as important for salt marsh ecosystem function as S. patens’ moderation of salinity and desiccation stresses. From these experimental results, we anticipate that climate change-associated thermal stress will not greatly affect S. patens-dominated high marsh communities. In contrast, foundation species loss, an emergent conservation issue in Atlantic salt marshes, represents a critical threat to salt marsh ecosystem function.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank K. Raposa at the NBNERR for site coordination and temperature data, C. Holdredge and C. M. Crain for help in the field, and A. Altieri for helpful comments on the manuscript. This work was funded through EPA STAR and NERRS GRF funding to K. B. G. and RI Sea Grant funding to M. D. B. All research was in compliance with United States’ laws.

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Correspondence to Keryn B. Gedan.

Additional information

Communicated by Jon Keeley.

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Gedan, K.B., Bertness, M.D. How will warming affect the salt marsh foundation species Spartina patens and its ecological role?. Oecologia 164, 479–487 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-010-1661-x

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Keywords

  • Climate change
  • Salt marsh die-off
  • Ecosystem engineer
  • Epifauna