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Spatial organization and ecohydrological interactions in oxygen-limited vegetation ecosystems

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Abstract

[1] Wetlands are characterized by extremely high biodiversity and primary productivity (comparable to tropical rain forests), provide critical habitats for rare and endangered vegetation and animal species, and mediate the effects of floods and the action of the sea on the coast. A deep understanding of wetland system functioning cannot be acquired by simply reducing its dynamics to a collection of parts but requires the explicit description of wetland physical and ecological processes as fully interacting components. In fact, the complex spatial ecohydrological patterns characterizing wetland areas arise as a result of the coupled evolution of their ecological, hydrological, and morphological features. Here we examine observations of prominent spatial patterns in wetland vegetation and link them to the relevant hydrological and ecological processes. We describe the limitations to vegetation development due to scarce soil oxygen availability and implement a mathematical model, based on Richards' equation, coupling subsurface water flow and plant water uptake in a tidal salt marsh. The soil aeration patterns arising from such interactions highlight the central role of vegetation in increasing soil aeration, possibly inducing the establishment of a permanently aerated soil layer (in spite of tidal flooding), and the influence of different soil characteristics on soil oxygen availability. Finally, we discuss how ecohydrological interactions can contribute to explain patterns of vegetation colonization and spatial heterogeneity.

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