Substrate mediates consumer control of salt marsh cordgrass on Cape Cod, New England

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: P. M. Groffman.

Abstract

Cordgrass die-offs in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA, salt marshes have challenged the view that the primary production of New England salt marshes is controlled by physical factors. These die-offs have increased dramatically over the last decade and are caused by the common herbivorous marsh crab Sesarma reticulatum, but other factors that control crab impacts remain unclear. We examined the influence of plant nutrient supply and disturbances on Sesarma herbivory by fertilizing plots and creating experimental disturbances, since previous studies have revealed that they mediate the intensity of herbivory in other Western Atlantic marshes. Neither nutrient enrichment nor experimental disturbances affected crab grazing intensity despite their strong effects in other marsh systems. Within and among Cape Cod salt marshes, however, Sesarma burrows are concentrated on peat substrate. Surveys of 10 Cape Cod marshes revealed that burrow density, depth, and complexity are all much higher on peat than on sand or mud substrate, and paralleling these patterns, crab abundance, herbivore pressure, and the expansion of die-off areas are markedly higher on peat than on other substrates. Complementing work hypothesizing that predator release is triggering increased crab herbivory in Cape Cod marshes, these results suggest that cordgrass die-offs are constrained to the peat substrate commonly found on the leading edge of marshes and that the vulnerability of New England salt marshes to crab herbivory and future die-offs may be predictable.

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