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Early Stages of Sea-Level Rise Lead To Decreased Salt Marsh Plant Diversity through Stronger Competition in Mediterranean-Climate Marshes


Climate change shuffles species ranges and creates novel interactions that may either buffer communities against climate change or exacerbate its effect. For instance, facilitation can become more prevalent in salt marshes under stressful conditions while competition is stronger in benign environments. Sea-level rise (SLR) is a consequence of climate change that affects the distribution of stress from inundation and salinity. To determine how interactions early in SLR are affected by changes in these two stressors in Mediterranean-climate marshes, we transplanted marsh turfs to lower elevations to simulate SLR and manipulated cover of the dominant plant species, Salicornia pacifica (formerly Salicornia virginica). We found that both S. pacifica and the subordinate species were affected by inundation treatments, and that subordinate species cover and diversity were lower at low elevations in the presence of S. pacifica than when it was removed. These results suggest that the competitive effect of S. pacifica on other plants is stronger at lower tidal elevations where we also found that salinity is reduced. As sea levels rise, stronger competition by the dominant plant will likely reduce diversity and cover of subordinate species, suggesting that stronger species interactions will exacerbate the effects of climate change on the plant community.

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