Small-mammal herbivore control of secondary succession in New England tidal marshes.
Secondary succession is impacted by both biotic and abiotic forces, but their relative importance varies due to environmental drivers. Across estuarine salinity gradients, physical stress increases with salinity, and biotic stresses are greater at lower salinities. In southern New England tidal marshes spanning a landscape-scale salinity gradient, we experimentally examined the effects of physical stress and consumer pressure by mammalian herbivores on secondary succession in artificially created bare patches. Recovery was slower in marshes exposed to full-strength seawater, where physical stress is high. Compared to full-strength salt marshes, recovery in low-salinity marshes was much faster and was influenced by small-mammal consumers. At lower salinities, small mammals selectively ate and prevented the establishment of several native and two invasive, nuisance species (Typha angustifolia and Phragmites australis) but were unable to control the expansion of established P. australis stands. By controlling the establishment of competitively dominant species and the trajectory of secondary succession in low-salinity marshes, small mammals may play a cryptic keystone role in estuarine plant communities and are a critical, overlooked consideration in the conservation and management of estuarine marshes.