Belowground herbivory increases vulnerability of New England salt marshes to die-off


  • Corresponding Editor: P. M. Kotanen.


Belowground herbivory is commonly overlooked as a mechanism of top-down control in vegetated habitats, particularly in aquatic ecosystems. Recent research has revealed that increased densities of the herbivorous crab Sesarma reticulatum have led to runaway herbivory and widespread salt marsh die-off on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA. Aboveground herbivory is a major driver of this cordgrass habitat loss, but the role of belowground grazing is poorly understood. Sesarma live in communal burrows typically consisting of 1–2 openings and containing 2–3 crabs. However, at die-off sites, burrow complexes can cover >90% of the low marsh zone, with crab densities as high as 50 crabs/m2 and burrow opening densities of 170 openings/m2. The magnitude of belowground Sesarma activity in association with salt marsh die-off provides an excellent opportunity to extend our knowledge of belowground herbivory impacts in coastal wetlands. Since Sesarma burrows allow access to cordgrass roots and rhizomes, and Sesarma are frequently restricted to burrows by thermal stress and predation, we hypothesized that belowground herbivory would be widespread in die-off areas. We experimentally demonstrate that Sesarma readily eat belowground roots and rhizomes in addition to aboveground cordgrass leaves. We then partitioned above- and belowground herbivory with field manipulations and found that belowground grazing is not only common, but can cause total plant mortality. Additional experiments revealed that plants remain vulnerable to belowground herbivory even after reaching a size refuge from aboveground grazing. This suggests that belowground herbivory contributes to salt marsh die-offs and adds to growing evidence that belowground herbivory is a widespread structuring force in plant communities that can limit habitat persistence.