Survival of the thickest? Impacts of extreme wave-forcing on marsh seedlings are mediated by species morphology

Ken Schoutens, Svenja Reents, Stefanie Nolte, Ben Evans, Maike Paul, Matthias Kudella, Tjeerd Bouma, Iris Möller, Stijn Temmerman

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Although tidal marshes are known for their coastal defense function during storm surges, the impact of extreme wave forcing on tidal marsh development is poorly understood. Seedling survival in the first season after germination, which may involve exposure to extreme wave events, is crucial for the natural establishment and human restoration of marshes. We hypothesize that species-specific plant traits plays a significant role in seedlings survival and response to wave induced stress, i.e., through stem bending and uprooting. To test this hypothesis, seedlings of pioneer species (Bolboschoenus maritimus, Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani, Spartina anglica, and Puccinellia maritima) with contrasting biophysical traits were placed in the Large Wave Flume in Hannover (Germany) and exposed to storm wave conditions. Seedlings of P. maritima and S. anglica experienced a lower loss rate and bending angle after wave exposure compared to S. tabernaemontani and especially B. maritimus. The higher loss rates of B. maritimus and S. tabernaemontani result from deeper scouring around the stem base. Scouring depth was larger around stems of greater diameter and higher resistance to bending. Here, B. maritimus and S. tabernaemontani have both thicker and stiffer stems than S. anglica and P. maritima. Our results show that especially seedlings with thicker stems suffer from erosion and scouring, and have the highest risk of being lost during extreme wave events. This implies that for successful seedling establishment and eventually the establishment of a mature tidal marsh vegetation, the species composition and their capacity to cope with storm wave disturbances is crucial.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2936-2951
Number of pages16
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number7
Early online date31 May 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021

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