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Abiotic and biotic drivers of spatial variation in salt marsh species interactions and community dynamics

  • Author(s): Noto, Akana
  • Advisor(s): Shurin, Jonathan B
  • et al.

Interactions among members of ecological communities often vary spatially in response to environmental differences. Yet interactions can also vary spatially as a result of biotic factors such as differences in species traits or variation in other species interactions. It is necessary to understand the conditions under which each of these drivers of variation has an effect in order to predict how species interactions will be affected both by changes in the environment and in biotic communities. In this thesis, I explore mechanisms that may cause species interactions to vary across space at local, regional and continental scales in salt marsh plant communities. Chapter 1 investigates the relationship between the environment (means and variability) and community diversity and stability in time-series data from the east and west coasts of North America. Chapter 2 experimentally investigates the effect of sea-level rise on species interactions within a marsh. Chapter 3 seeks to understand geographic variation in plant interactions among six sites spanning the California coast. Chapter 4 uses a common garden experiment to test whether spatial variation in species interactions are driven by differences among plant populations or the environment. Finally, Chapter 5 describes geographic patterns of variation in herbivore pressure to determine whether herbivory drives regional differences in interactions among plants. I found that changes in mean conditions, including sea level, can affect community diversity, stability and strength of species interactions. Environmental variability only affects community stability and diversity when it is relatively large, so increases in variability with climate change may cause plant community dynamics to become affected by both variability and means. Species interactions vary geographically along the west coast, but unlike on the east coast, do not show consistent trends with latitude. Rather, interaction strengths may differ due to trait variation among plant populations and differences in herbivore pressure. My thesis demonstrates that environmental conditions and local factors, including intraspecific phenotypic variation and herbivory, both determine the nature of species interactions in salt marshes, and that the west coast of North America shows geographic patterns in interactions that are distinct from those found on the east coast.

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