Nutrient limitation of plant growth and forage quality in Arctic coastal marshes



    1. Department of Botany, University of Toronto, 25 Willcocks Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 3B2
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      Present address: Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Boulevard, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4.


    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Botany, University of Toronto, 25 Willcocks Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 3B2
      R.L. Jefferies (fax +1 416 978 5878; e-mail
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R.L. Jefferies (fax +1 416 978 5878; e-mail


  • 1Foraging by geese has led to vegetation loss in salt marshes along the Hudson Bay coast and lesser snow geese are increasingly grazing inland freshwater marshes. We determined whether different nutrients limit the growth of forage plants in the two habitats, and whether these differences affect the nutritional quality of vegetation available to geese at La Pérouse Bay, Manitoba.
  • 2Results from fertilization experiments indicate that primary productivity in the salt marsh is both nitrogen and phosphorus limited, whereas the freshwater marsh is phosphorus limited. Total amounts of calcium, magnesium and potassium in above-ground biomass per unit area showed similar differences in limitation.
  • 3Leaves of preferred forage species have higher nutrient concentrations (nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium) and lower C : N and C : P ratios than alternative forage. The main forage species in the salt marsh (Puccinellia phryganodes) has higher nutrient content per unit mass, for nitrogen, magnesium, calcium and sodium, than the major freshwater marsh species(Carex aquatilis). The difference in nutritional quality of forage between the marshes is likely to have had consequences for goose fitness, and may have contributed to the reported declines in gosling survivorship and size.
  • 4At moderate grazing intensities, seasonal growth of salt-marsh forage is maintained by addition of nitrogen and, to a lesser extent, phosphorus from high numbers of goose faeces to swards. In contrast, the low densities and low phosphorus content of goose faeces in the phosphorus-limited freshwater marsh mean that plants are unlikely to recover rapidly from the effects of grazing. As a consequence, the freshwater marsh is likely to become increasingly less productive as foraging intensifies.
  • 5Nutrient gradients in vegetation across an ecotone and changes in foraging behaviour have resulted in adverse effects on both the growth rates of individuals and the population structure of a herbivore.