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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13569

Increasing grazer density leads to linear decreases in Spartina alterniflora biomass and exponential increases in grazing pressure across a barrier island

Julianna J. Renzi*, Brian R. Silliman

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Researchers now recognize that top-down as well as bottom-up forces regulate salt marsh primary production. However, how top-down forces vary with grazer density is still poorly resolved. To begin to address this void, we: (1) surveyed grazing intensity in short-form Spartina alterniflora across Sapelo Island, Georgia, and (2) removed varying densities of grazers from thirteen sites over two-years. Our survey revealed a non-linear relationship between snail abundance and grazing intensity, with grazing scars per stem increasing exponentially with snail density. Further, there appeared to be a threshold at ~80 snails m-2, below which increasing snail density did not significantly increase grazing scars—potentially because snails target dead grass rather than live grass when competition with other snails is low. Increasing snail densities also exponentially reduced stem density within a plot, but only over 80 snails m-2. Our removal experiment showed that snails linearly decreased S. alterniflora biomass across a naturally representative range of snails (0-586 snails m-²) and that top-down control of short-form S. alterniflora was important at multiple sites across an island, with snail removal on average increasing primary production by 164%. Our results reveal top-down control of short-form S. alterniflora is a common process across this intensively studied island and that grazing scars increase non-linearly with snail density, while consumer effects on biomass increase linearly. Future models based on marsh plant growth (e.g. geomorphic evolution, primary production) should incorporate both the importance and shape of grazer control to create more accurate carbon budgets and better understand marsh network dynamics.