Evolving Landscapes: the Effect of Genetic Variation on Salt Marsh Erosion

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 4:15 PM
Brittany M Bernik and Michael J Blum, Tulane University of Louisiana, New Orleans, LA, United States
Ecogeomorphic studies have demonstrated that biota can exert influence over geomorphic processes, such as sediment transport, which in turn have biotic consequences and generate complex feedbacks. However, little attention has been paid to the potential for feedback to arise from evolutionary processes as population genetic composition changes in response to changing physical landscapes. In coastal ecosystems experiencing land loss, for example, shoreline erosion entails reduced plant survival and reproduction, and thereby represents a geomorphic response with inherent consequences for evolutionary fitness. To get at this topic, we examined the effect of genetic variation in the saltmarsh grass Spartina alterniflora, a renowned ecosystem engineer, on rates of shoreline erosion. Field transplantation studies and controlled greenhouse experiments were conducted to compare different genotypes from both wild and cultivated populations. Plant traits, soil properties, accretion/subsidence, and rates of land loss were measured. We found significant differences in rates of erosion between field plots occupied by different genotypes. Differences in erosion corresponded to variation in soil properties including critical shear stress and subsidence. Plant traits that differed across genotypes included belowground biomass, root tensile strength, and C:N ratios. Our results demonstrate the importance of genetic variation to salt marsh functioning, elucidating the relationship between evolutionary processes and ecogeomorphic dynamics in these systems. Because evolutionary processes can occur on ecological timescales, the direction and strength of ecogeomorphic feedbacks may be more dynamic than previously accounted for.