Plant-plant interactions in a subtropical mangrove-to-marsh transition zone: effects of environmental drivers

Rebecca J. Howard*, Ken W. Krauss, Nicole Cormier, Richard H. Day, Janelda Biagas, Larry Allain

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Questions: Does the presence of herbaceous vegetation affect the establishment success of mangrove tree species in the transition zone between subtropical coastal mangrove forests and marshes? How do plant-plant interactions in this transition zone respond to variation in two primary coastal environmental drivers? Location: Subtropical coastal region of the southern United States. Methods: We conducted a greenhouse study to better understand how abiotic factors affect plant species interactions in the mangrove-to-marsh transition zone, or ecotone. We manipulated salinity (fresh, brackish or salt water) and hydrologic conditions (continuously saturated or 20-cm tidal range) to simulate ecotonal environments. Propagules of the mangroves Avicennia germinans and Laguncularia racemosa were introduced to mesocosms containing an established marsh community. Both mangrove species were also introduced to containers lacking other vegetation. We monitored mangrove establishment success and survival over 22 mo. Mangrove growth was measured as stem height and above-ground biomass. Stem height, stem density and above-ground biomass of the dominant marsh species were documented. Results: Establishment success of A. germinans was reduced under saturated saltwater conditions, but establishment of L. racemosa was not affected by experimental treatments. There was complete mortality of A. germinans in mesocosms under freshwater conditions, and very low survival of L. racemosa. In contrast, survival of both species in monoculture under freshwater conditions exceeded 62%. The marsh species Distichlis spicata and Eleocharis cellulosa suppressed growth of both mangroves throughout the experiment, whereas the mangroves did not affect herbaceous species growth. The magnitude of growth suppression by marsh species varied with environmental conditions; suppression was often higher in saturated compared to tidal conditions, and higher in fresh and salt water compared to brackish water. Conclusions: Our results indicate that herbaceous marsh species can suppress mangrove early seedling growth. Depending on species composition and density, marsh plants can slow mangrove landward migration under predicted climate change scenarios as salinity in freshwater and oligohaline wetlands increases with rising sea levels. Change in the relative coverage of mangrove forests and marshes will depend on both the ability of marsh species to migrate further inland as mangroves advance, and the ability of shoreline mangroves to adjust to rising sea level through accretionary processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1198-1211
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Vegetation Science
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Avicennia germinans
  • Brackish marsh
  • Ecotone
  • Flooding
  • Gulf of Mexico
  • Hydrology
  • Interspecific interactions
  • Laguncularia racemosa
  • Mangrove migration
  • Salinity
  • Salt marsh
  • Transition zone


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