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Species interactions modulate the response of saltmarsh plants to flooding

Edge, Ryan S and Sullivan, Martin JP and Pedley, Scott M and Mossman, Hannah (2019) Species interactions modulate the response of saltmarsh plants to flooding. Annals of Botany. ISSN 0305-7364


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Background and aims The vegetation that grows on coastal wetlands is important for ecosystem functioning, a role mediated by plant traits. These traits can be affected by environmental stressors and by the competitive environment the plant experiences. The relative importance of these influences on different traits is poorly understood and, despite theoretical expectations for how factors may interact, empirical data are conflicting. Our aims are to determine the effect of flooding, species composition and their interaction on plant functional traits, and assess the role of biodiversity and species composition in driving community-level responses to flooding. Methods We conducted a factorial glasshouse experiment assessing the effects of species composition (all combinations of three saltmarsh species, Aster tripolium, Plantagomaritima and Triglochin maritima) and flooding (immersion of roots) on a suite of functional traits. We also related biomass in mixed species pots to that expected from monocultures to assess how species interactions affect community-level biomass. Key results Species composition frequently interacted with flooding to influence functional traits and community level properties. However, there was also considerable intraspecific variability in traits within each treatment. Generally, effects of flooding were more pronounced for belowground than aboveground biomass, while composition affected aboveground biomass more than belowground biomass. We found both negative and positive interactions between species (indicated by differences in above and belowground biomass from expectations under monoculture), meaning that composition was an important determinate of community function. Conclusions While the effect of flooding alone on traits was relatively weak, it interacted with species composition to modify the response of both individual plants and communities. Our results suggest that responses to increased flooding will be complex and depend on neighbourhood species interactions. Furthermore, intraspecific trait variability is a potential resource that may dampen the effects of changes in flooding regime.

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