The role of biotic and abiotic processes in the zonation of salt marsh plants in the Nueces River delta, Texas
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Salt marshes provide critical ecosystem services, such as shoreline stabilization, biogeochemical cycling and habitat for wildlife, to much of the world's population living on the coasts. Emergent vascular plants are a critical component of these ecosystems. This study was a comprehensive effort to gain a better understanding of the ecology of salt marsh plants in the Nueces River delta on the south Texas coast. This knowledge is essential to understand the potential anthropogenic impacts on salt marshes, including sea-level rise, global warming, reduced freshwater inflow and coastal erosion. A combination of remote sensing analysis, field studies and experiments were used to allow analysis across spatial scales ranging from landscape patterns of vegetation to leaf level measurements of the dominant species. A novel method of image classification was developed using high-resolution multi-spectral imagery integrated with ancillary data to map the major plant communities at a landscape scale. This included a high marsh assemblage composed primarily of Spartina spartinae and a low marsh community dominated by Borrichia frutescens and Salicornia virginica. Geospatial analysis determined that the location of these plant communities was related to the distance from the tidal creek network and elevation. The B. frutescens and S. virginica assemblage was more abundant at lower elevations along the waters edge, making it vulnerable to loss from shoreline erosion. At a finer spatial scale, gradient analysis was utilized to examine the relationship between elevation, which creates environmental gradients in salt marshes, and species distribution. I discovered that elevation differences of less than 5 cm can influence both individual species and plant community distribution. One interesting finding was that the two dominant species, B. frutescens and S. virginica, share similar responses along an elevation gradient yet are observed growing in monotypic adjacent zones. I constructed a large reciprocal transplant experiment, using 160 plants at 4 sites throughout the marsh, to determine what causes the zonation between these two species. The results of this study found that S. virginica fared well wherever it was transplanted but was a weak competitor. B. frutescens survival was significantly lower in the S. virginica zone than in its own zone suggesting that abiotic factors are important in determining the zonation of this species. However, high spatial and temporal variability existed in environmental parameters such as salinity. This variability may have been caused by the semi-arid climate and irregular flooding typical in the Nueces Marsh. Therefore, I utilized a greenhouse experiment to directly test the importance of the two dominant physical factors in salt marshes, flooding and salinity. The results found that for B. frutescens the effects of flooding were not significant, however salinity at 30% reduced growth. Salinity did not influence growth of S. virginica. The greater ability of S. virginica to tolerate salinity stress has important implications because reduced freshwater inflow or climate change can increase porewater salinity, thus favoring the expansion of S. virginica, and altering the plant community structure.