Patch size-dependent community recovery after massive disturbance

Authors


  • Corresponding Editor: J. T. Cronin.

Abstract

Massive anthropogenic and climate-related disturbances are now common in ecosystems worldwide, generating widespread die-off and subsequent community recovery dominated by remnant-patch dynamics rather than open-gap dynamics. Whether communities can recover and, if so, which factors mediate recolonization rate and extent remain unresolved. Here we evaluate recolonization dynamics of southern U.S. salt marshes that experienced extensive, drought-induced die-off of the foundation species Spartina alterniflora over the previous decade. Surveys of Georgia (USA) salt marshes showed little seedling recruitment in die-off areas but persistence of Spartina particularly in large, rather than small, remnant patches. Given this natural variation in remnant patch size, we conducted field experiments to test whether key plant-controlling biotic (grazing, plant neighbor presence) and abiotic (water availability) factors differentially impact Spartina recolonization at small and large-patch scales. In the small-patch (<1 m2) experiment in 2009, removing grazers and plant neighbors prompted dramatically higher expansion and growth of Spartina relative to controls, while adding freshwater to reduce water limitation had little effect. In contrast, large-patch (>20 m2) borders advanced significantly over the same time period regardless of grazer or neighbor removal. We continued the large-patch experiments in 2010, a year that experienced drought, and also added freshwater or salt to borders to modify ambient drought stress; overall, borders advanced less than the previous year but significantly more where neighbors were removed or freshwater added. Thus, water availability appears to mediate Spartina recovery by fueling large-patch expansion during wet summers and intensifying interspecific competition during drought. Combined, these findings suggest ecosystems can recover from massive disturbance if remnant foundation species' patches are large enough to overcome biotic inhibition and successfully expand during periods of relaxed abiotic stress.

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