Opposing indirect effects of domestic herbivores on saltmarsh erosion

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Herbivores can sometimes influence the geomorphology of landscapes, particularly in systems dominated by hydrology. Salt marshes deliver globally valuable benefits, including coastal protection, yet they sometimes rapidly erode. Triggers for erosion are often unknown, but livestock grazing is a suspected cause in many regions of the world where agricultural use of saltmarshes is pervasive. To understand the influence of grazing on saltmarsh erosion, we sampled the plant community, soil chemistry and soil mechanical properties along 2-5 creeks in grazed and ungrazed marshes. Erosion was quantified as: (1) the rates of erosion of extracted soil-plant cores in a hydrological flume and (2) the number of erosional break-offs (‘slump blocks’) per creek. We found that domestic herbivores influenced saltmarsh geomorphology via two indirect and opposing pathways: one involving soil mechanical properties and the other mediated by plant traits and bare soil cover, all within a soil physico-chemical environment. The net effect of grazing was a reduction of saltmarsh lateral erodibility, thus an increase in marsh resilience. Our results highlight the role of herbivores not only as controllers of the flow of energy and materials through the trophic web, but also as modifiers of the abiotic environment. Managers and scientists must remain vigilant to both the obvious direct, as well as the more nuanced indirect pathways, that can influence grazed ecosystems. This study calls for a closer look to the biological-side of the equation when assessing biogeomorphic feedbacks and plant-soil-animal interactions.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEcosystems
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2018

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