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Competition and Salt-Marsh Plant Zonation: Stress Tolerators May Be Dominant Competitors

Nancy C. Emery, Patrick J. Ewanchuk and Mark D. Bertness
Ecology
Vol. 82, No. 9 (Sep., 2001), pp. 2471-2485
Published by: Wiley
DOI: 10.2307/2679929
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2679929
Page Count: 15
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Competition and Salt-Marsh Plant Zonation: Stress Tolerators May Be Dominant Competitors
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Abstract

Although a great deal of research has focused on the effects of nutrient supply on plant competition, few studies have explored how these processes interact with non-resource factors to determine community-level patterns. This study examined how resource competition interacts with physical stress to structure salt-marsh plant communities across a natural gradient in tidal stress. First, nutrient additions at naturally occurring species borders at zonal and patch boundaries in two Rhode Island (USA) marshes revealed that competitive outcomes were typically reversed when nutrients were abundant. These results, which are consistent with earlier findings in a third southern New England marsh, suggest that a nutrient-dependent competitive hierarchy is a general characteristic of salt marshes in this region. To test whether these shifts in competitive outcomes occur only at naturally occurring species borders or can lead to more significant shifts in zonation patterns, lower marsh species were transplanted into the matrix of each zonal species at higher tidal elevations, and the outcomes of plant competition in fertilized plots and unfertilized plots were compared. Results of this experiment indicate that nutrient effects on the competitive relations of marsh plants were independent of where the interactions took place along the tidal gradient. The stress-tolerant species were consistently the best competitors in fertilized treatments, showing that an increase in nutrient availability can lead to drastic shifts in the distributions of plants across marshes. Finally, a third experiment examined the interaction between nutrient supply and the aboveground and belowground components of plant competition using a reciprocal transplant design coupled with nutrient-addition and neighbor-removal treatments. Results suggest that competition is primarily belowground under ambient marsh conditions but is aboveground at high nutrient levels. Thus the mechanism underlying the nutrient-dependent competitive hierarchy may be driven by a trade-off between belowground and aboveground competitive abilities, although the potential interaction between above- and belowground effects was not examined. Together, the results of these experiments suggest that nutrient supplies may significantly affect the competitive dynamics between salt-marsh perennials and their resultant zonation across an environmental gradient in tidal stress. The result that stress tolerators can be dominant competitors is not predicted by any current model of plant competition and must be considered in future empirical and theoretical studies.

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