MEPS 180:161-177 (1999)  -  doi:10.3354/meps180161

Patterns of development in the creekbank region of a barrier island Spartina alterniflora marsh

Anna Christina Tyler*, Joseph C. Zieman

Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903, USA

ABSTRACT: Physical factors, such as local geomorphology and hydrology, are the primary determinants of biological pattern and process in a salt marsh. The increased topographic relief associated with the creekbank region is thought to control the unique chemistry and productivity found there. This study was designed to examine the role that tidal creeks play during the natural development of a barrier island Spartina alterniflora marsh ecosystem on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, USA. A salt marsh chronosequence, resulting from a 1962 overwash event, was used as a 'space-for-time' substitution in order to define the changes that take place within this marsh over a successional time scale. The chronosequence of marshes is largely attributed to the variation in elevation across the overwash platform: younger marshes are higher relative to sea level. We used a principal components analysis on a suite of physico-chemical and biological variables. A single principle component explained 53% of the variability in the data and is used to describe the functional trajectory along which these marshes develop. This component is associated with an increase in sediment organic matter and nitrogen content (%N), porewater nutrients, S. alterniflora height, weight, %flowering and %N, and a decrease in grain size and redox potential. The factor scores from this analysis, which were used as a proxy for the functional maturity of the marsh, increased from creek edge to interior marsh for young marsh sites. Thus, the marsh nearest the creek most resembles the mature marsh. The temporal patterns of creekwater physico-chemistry vary between different aged creeks, suggesting that due to their small size and shallow depth younger creeks act to retain nutrients and particulates within the marsh. The hydrological, chemical and biological processes within the creeks themselves and at the creekbank are important in controlling the overall rate of marsh development. While creeks act to accelerate the rate of maturation, our results also indicate that not all marshes follow the same developmental trajectory and that the regional landscape may be a more important factor. With the increased interest in marsh restoration and creation for the mitigation of coastal wetland loss, there is a need for a greater functional understanding of the factors that control marsh development. The results of this study suggest that increasing creek frontage will increase the rate at which created marshes achieve functional equivalence with mature marshes.

KEY WORDS: Salt marsh · Barrier island · Tidal creek · Succession · Chronosequence · Spartina

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