Shifting nutrient limitation and eutrophication effects in marsh vegetation across estuarine salinity gradients

Research paper by Caitlin Mullan Crain

Indexed on: 01 Feb '07Published on: 01 Feb '07Published in: Estuaries and coasts : journal of the Estuarine Research Federation


In light of widespread coastal eutrophication, identifying which nutrients limit vegetation and the community consequences when limitation is relaxed is critical to maintaining the health of estuarine marshes. Studies in temperate salt marshes have generally identified nitrogen (N) as the primary limiting nutrient for marsh vegetation, but the limiting nutrient in low salinity tidal marshes is unknown. I use a 3-yr nutrient addition experiment in mid elevation,Spartina patens dominated marshes that vary in salinity along two estuaries in southern Maine to examine variation in nutrient effects. Nutrient limitation shifted across estuarine salinity gradients; salt and brackish marsh vegetation was N limited, while oligohaline marsh vegetation was co-limited by N and phosphorus (P). Plant tissue analysis ofS. patens showed plants in the highest salinity marshes had the greatest percent N, despite N limitation, suggesting that N limitation in salt marshes is partially driven by a high demand for N to aid in salinity tolerance. Fertilization had little effect on species composition in monospecificS. patents stands of salt and brackish marshes, but N+P treatments in species-rich oligohaline marshes significantly altered community composition, favoring dominance by high aboveground producing plants. Eutrophication by both N and P has the potential to greatly reduce the characteristic high diversity of oligohaline marshes. Inputs of both nutrients in coastal watersheds must be managed to protect the diversity and functioning of the full range of estuarine marshes.