Coastal salt marshes are highly sensitive wetland ecosystems that can sustain long-term impacts from anthropogenic events such as oil spills. In this study, we examined the microbial communities of a Gulf of Mexico coastal salt marsh during and after the influx of petroleum hydrocarbons following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Total hydrocarbon concentrations in salt marsh sediments were highest in June and July 2010 and decreased in September 2010. Coupled PhyloChip and GeoChip microarray analyses demonstrated that the microbial community structure and function of the extant salt marsh hydrocarbon-degrading microbial populations changed significantly during the study. The relative richness and abundance of phyla containing previously described hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria (Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, and Actinobacteria) increased in hydrocarbon-contaminated sediments and then decreased once hydrocarbons were below detection. Firmicutes, however, continued to increase in relative richness and abundance after hydrocarbon concentrations were below detection. Functional genes involved in hydrocarbon degradation were enriched in hydrocarbon-contaminated sediments then declined significantly (p<0.05) once hydrocarbon concentrations decreased. A greater decrease in hydrocarbon concentrations among marsh grass sediments compared to inlet sediments (lacking marsh grass) suggests that the marsh rhizosphere microbial communities could also be contributing to hydrocarbon degradation. The results of this study provide a comprehensive view of microbial community structural and functional dynamics within perturbed salt marsh ecosystems.
Ecosystem boundary retreat due to human-induced pressure is a generally observed phenomenon. However, studies that document thresholds beyond which internal resistance mechanisms are overwhelmed are uncommon. Following the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, field studies from a few sites suggested that oiling of salt marshes could lead to a biogeomorphic feedback where plant death resulted in increased marsh erosion. We tested for spatial generality of and thresholds in this effect across 103 salt marsh sites spanning ~430 kilometers of shoreline in coastal Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, using data collected as part of the natural resource damage assessment (NRDA). Our analyses revealed a threshold for oil impacts on marsh edge erosion, with higher erosion rates occurring for ~1-2 years after the spill at sites with the highest amounts of plant stem oiling (90-100%). These results provide compelling evidence showing large-scale ecosystem loss following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. More broadly, these findings provide rare empirical evidence identifying a geomorphologic threshold in the resistance of an ecosystem to increasing intensity of human-induced disturbance.
Wetlands are the largest natural source of atmospheric methane. Here, we assess controls on methane flux using a database of approximately 19 000 instantaneous measurements from 71 wetland sites located across subtropical, temperate, and northern high latitude regions. Our analyses confirm general controls on wetland methane emissions from soil temperature, water table, and vegetation, but also show that these relationships are modified depending on wetland type (bog, fen, or swamp), region (subarctic to temperate), and disturbance. Fen methane flux was more sensitive to vegetation and less sensitive to temperature than bog or swamp fluxes. The optimal water table for methane flux was consistently below the peat surface in bogs, close to the peat surface in poor fens, and above the peat surface in rich fens. However, the largest flux in bogs occurred when dry 30-day averaged antecedent conditions were followed by wet conditions, while in fens and swamps, the largest flux occurred when both 30-day averaged antecedent and current conditions were wet. Drained wetlands exhibited distinct characteristics, e.g. the absence of large flux following wet and warm conditions, suggesting that the same functional relationships between methane flux and environmental conditions cannot be used across pristine and disturbed wetlands. Together, our results suggest that water table and temperature are dominant controls on methane flux in pristine bogs and swamps, while other processes, such as vascular transport in pristine fens, have the potential to partially override the effect of these controls in other wetland types. Because wetland types vary in methane emissions and have distinct controls, these ecosystems need to be considered separately to yield reliable estimates of global wetland methane release.
Salt marshes are valued for their ecosystem services, and their vulnerability is typically assessed through biotic and abiotic measurements at individual points on the landscape. However, lateral erosion can lead to rapid marsh loss as marshes build vertically. Marsh sediment budgets represent a spatially integrated measure of competing constructive and destructive forces: a sediment surplus may result in vertical growth and/or lateral expansion, while a sediment deficit may result in drowning and/or lateral contraction. Here we show that sediment budgets of eight microtidal marsh complexes consistently scale with areal unvegetated/vegetated marsh ratios (UVVR) suggesting these metrics are broadly applicable indicators of microtidal marsh vulnerability. All sites are exhibiting a sediment deficit, with half the sites having projected lifespans of less than 350 years at current rates of sea-level rise and sediment availability. These results demonstrate that open-water conversion and sediment deficits are holistic and sensitive indicators of salt marsh vulnerability.
Salt marsh habitat loss to vegetation die-offs has accelerated throughout the western Atlantic in the last four decades. Recent studies have suggested that eutrophication, pollution and/or disease may contribute to the loss of marsh habitat. In light of recent evidence that predators are important determinants of marsh health in New England, we performed a total predator exclusion experiment. Here, we provide the first experimental evidence that predator depletion can cause salt marsh die-off by releasing the herbivorous crab Sesarma reticulatum from predator control. Excluding predators from a marsh ecosystem for a single growing season resulted in a >100% increase in herbivory and a >150% increase in unvegetated bare space compared to plots with predators. Our results confirm that marshes in this region face multiple, potentially synergistic threats.
Predator depletion on Cape Cod (USA) has released the herbivorous crab Sesarmareticulatum from predator control leading to the loss of cordgrass from salt marsh creek banks. After more than three decades of die-off, cordgrass is recovering at heavily damaged sites coincident with the invasion of green crabs (Carcinusmaenas) into intertidal Sesarma burrows. We hypothesized that Carcinus is dependent on Sesarma burrows for refuge from physical and biotic stress in the salt marsh intertidal and reduces Sesarma functional density and herbivory through consumptive and non-consumptive effects, mediated by both visual and olfactory cues. Our results reveal that in the intertidal zone of New England salt marshes, Carcinus are burrow dependent, Carcinus reduce Sesarma functional density and herbivory in die-off areas and Sesarma exhibit a generic avoidance response to large, predatory crustaceans. These results support recent suggestions that invasive Carcinus are playing a role in the recovery of New England salt marshes and assertions that invasive species can play positive roles outside of their native ranges.
Landscape-level shifts in plant species distribution and abundance can fundamentally change the ecology of an ecosystem. Such shifts are occurring within mangrove-marsh ecotones, where over the last few decades, relatively mild winters have led to mangrove expansion into areas previously occupied by salt marsh plants. On the Texas (USA) coast of the western Gulf of Mexico, most cases of mangrove expansion have been documented within specific bays or watersheds. Based on this body of relatively small-scale work and broader global patterns of mangrove expansion, we hypothesized that there has been a recent regional-level displacement of salt marshes by mangroves. We classified Landsat-5 Thematic Mapper images using artificial neural networks to quantify black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) expansion and salt marsh (Spartina alterniflora and other grass and forb species) loss over 20 years across the entire Texas coast. Between 1990 and 2010, mangrove area grew by 16.1 km2, a 74% increase. Concurrently, salt marsh area decreased by 77.8 km2, a 24% net loss. Only 6% of that loss was attributable to mangrove expansion; most salt marsh was lost due to conversion to tidal flats or water, likely a result of relative sea level rise. Our research confirmed that mangroves are expanding and, in some instances, displacing salt marshes at certain locations. However, this shift is not widespread when analyzed at a larger, regional level. Rather, local, relative sea level rise was indirectly implicated as another important driver causing regional-level salt marsh loss. Climate change is expected to accelerate both sea level rise and mangrove expansion; these mechanisms are likely to interact synergistically and contribute to salt marsh loss.
The greenhead horse fly, Tabanus nigrovittatus Macquart, is frequently found in coastal marshes of the Eastern United States. The greenhead horse fly larvae are top predators in the marsh and thus vulnerable to changes in the environment, and the adults potentially are attracted to polarized surfaces like oil. Therefore, horse fly populations could serve as bioindicators of marsh health and toxic effects of oil intrusion. In this study, we describe the impact of the April 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on tabanid population abundance and genetics as well as mating structure. Horse fly populations were sampled biweekly from oiled and unaffected locations immediately after the oil spill in June 2010 until October 2011. Horse fly abundance estimates showed severe crashes of tabanid populations in oiled areas. Microsatellite genotyping of six pristine and seven oiled populations at ten polymorphic loci detected genetic bottlenecks in six of the oiled populations in association with fewer breeding parents, reduced effective population size, lower number of family clusters and fewer migrants among populations. This is the first study assessing the impact of oil contamination at the level of a top arthropod predator of the invertebrate community in salt marshes.
Climate change and other anthropogenic stressors are converging on coastal ecosystems worldwide. Understanding how these stressors interact to affect ecosystem structure and function has immediate implications for coastal planning, however few studies quantify stressor interactions. We examined past and potential future interactions between two leading stressors on New England salt marshes: sea-level rise and marsh crab (Sesarma reticulatum) grazing driven low marsh die-off. Geospatial analyses reveal that crab-driven die-off has led to an order of magnitude more marsh loss than sea-level rise between 2005 and 2013. However, field transplant experimental results suggest that sea-level rise will facilitate crab expansion into higher elevation marsh platforms by inundating and gradually softening now-tough high marsh peat, exposing large areas to crab-driven die-off. Taking interactive effects of marsh softening and concomitant overgrazing into account, we estimate that even modest levels of sea-level rise will lead to levels of salt marsh habitat loss that are 3x greater than the additive effects of sea-level rise and crab-driven die-off would predict. These findings highlight the importance of multiple stressor studies in enhancing mechanistic understanding of ecosystem vulnerabilities to future stress scenarios and encourage managers to focus on ameliorating local stressors to break detrimental synergisms, reduce future ecosystem loss, and enhance ecosystem resilience to global change.
Salt marsh and mangrove have been recognized as being among the most valuable ecosystem types globally in terms of their supply of ecosystem services and support for human livelihoods. These coastal ecosystems are also susceptible to the impacts of climate change and rising sea levels, with evidence of global shifts in the distribution of mangroves, including encroachment into salt marshes. The encroachment of woody mangrove shrubs and trees into herbaceous salt marshes may represent a substantial change in ecosystem structure, although resulting impacts on ecosystem functions and service provisions are largely unknown. In this review, we assess changes in ecosystem services associated with mangrove encroachment. While there is quantitative evidence to suggest that mangrove encroachment may enhance carbon storage and the capacity of a wetland to increase surface elevation in response to sea-level rise, for most services there has been no direct assessment of encroachment impact. On the basis of current understanding of ecosystem structure and function, we theorize that mangrove encroachment may increase nutrient storage and improve storm protection, but cause declines in habitat availability for fauna requiring open vegetation structure (such as migratory birds and foraging bats) as well as the recreational and cultural activities associated with this fauna (e.g., birdwatching and/or hunting). Changes to provisional services such as fisheries productivity and cultural services are likely to be site specific and dependent on the species involved. We discuss the need for explicit experimental testing of the effects of encroachment on ecosystem services in order to address key knowledge gaps, and present an overview of the options available to coastal resource managers during a time of environmental change.