Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Integrative Biology

Major Professor

Peter Stiling, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Susan Bell, Ph.D.

Committee Member

David Lewis, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Christina Richards, Ph.D.


competition, facilitation, plant stress, salt marsh fringing plants, salt marsh plants, soil inundation


The low-lying topographic nature of salt marshes makes plants in these communities particularly vulnerable to increased salinity and inundation exposure associated with sea level rise. Both increased salinity and inundation have been cited as major causes of reduced plant performance and survival in marsh and areas fringing marsh. In addition to limitations imposed by physical stress, interspecific interactions have also been shown to mediate the performance and survival of salt marsh and salt marsh fringing species. The Stress Gradient Hypothesis (SGH) postulates that species interactions shift from competitive to facilitative as stress levels increase and predicts that (a) the frequency and intensity of facilitative interactions increase as conditions become more stressful for plants and (b) the strength of competitive interactions increases as abiotic stress levels diminish. The SGH has been rigorously tested to examine how both the frequency and intensity of species interactions change under varying physical stress levels. Studies conducted in salt marsh systems have shown facilitation to be as strong of a driving force as competition in influencing plant performance and survival and have shown that while competition appears to be the pervasive force in the less physically stressful terrestrial zones fringing salt marshes, facilitation influences the performance and survival of species in harsher marsh areas. Under conditions of sea level rise, it remains unclear if the nature of interspecific interactions would shift as stress levels change. This research endeavors to examine the interplay between abiotic stresses and biotic interactions under conditions of increased salinity and inundation exposure.

The first study presented here investigated the effects of increased inundation and soil salinity associated with sea level rise on four salt marsh fringing species, and assesses how competition and facilitation impact survival of salt marsh fringing plant survival under these changing conditions. All plant species experienced reduced growth and photosynthetic inhibition below their current distributional positions, both in the presence and absence of neighboring above ground vegetation. The findings also signal a potential shift in the nature of interspecific interactions from competition to facilitation to neutral as plants begin to experience increased salt and inundation exposure.

The second study aimed to disentangle the effects of increased soil salinity and increased soil moisture on four salt marsh fringing species, and to examine the effects of plant neighbors. The results showed that fringe plants exposed to increased inundation experienced a two-fold reduction in performance and survival over 750 g pure salt addition, suggesting that inundation may be a more important limiting factor than salinity with rising sea levels. Landward transplants at the forest-fringe margin exposed to lower soil salinity and decreased inundation exhibited a three-fold increase in performance and survival when compared to controls. Neighbor manipulation studies, which consisted of trimming neighboring vegetation to ground level, again suggested that interspecific interactions in salt marsh fringing species may shift from competitive to facilitative with climate-induced sea level rise. Overall, our findings suggest that salt marsh fringing species may not be able to tolerate changing conditions associated with sea level rise and their survival may hinge on their ability to migrate towards higher elevations.

The final experiment tested the Stress Gradient Hypothesis and investigated the relative importance of facilitation and competition in a salt marsh system under varying stress levels. This study also ascertained whether salt or inundation exposure is the primary influence on salt marsh plant performance and survival. As in previous studies, our findings suggest that many salt marsh plants don't require, but merely tolerate harsher abiotic conditions. The results showed that plants at higher elevations were depressed by strong competitive pressure from neighboring fringe species while plants at lower elevations benefited from the presence of neighbors. Collectively, the results of these studies indicate that species interactions are an integral driver of plant distribution in salt marsh communities. Furthermore, our findings indicate that changing stress levels may not always result in a shift in the nature of interspecific interactions. These studies have endeavored to show that the interplay between competition and facilitation interacts with physical processes to determine the growth and performance of both fringe and marsh plant species. The paucity of studies examining the roles of species interactions and changing abiotic stress levels on multiple salt marsh and salt marsh fringing species warrants the need for additional research. The responses of salt marsh and salt marsh fringing species to sea level rise can not only serve as very valuable and sensitive indictors of climate change, but will also aid in predicting the future location of the marsh-fringe-forest ecotone, which is predicted to shift inland as sea levels continue to rise.