Vegetation dynamics in a tidal freshwater wetland: a long-term study at differing scales.
Tidal freshwater wetlands are complex, species-rich ecosystems located at the interface between tidal estuaries and nontidal rivers. This study conducted on the Patuxent River estuary in Maryland was designed to assess vegetation dynamics over several decades to determine if there were directional changes in the dominant communities. Aerial photographs (1970, 1989, and 2007) documented broad-scale spatial changes in major plant communities. The coverage of areas dominated by Nuphar lutea and Phragmites australis expanded; mixed vegetation and scrub-shrub habitats were essentially unchanged; and Typha and Zizania aquatica communities fluctuated in coverage. Data collected between 1988 and 2010 from permanent plots and transects were used to examine fine-scale changes. Shifts in the importance of some species through time were observed, but there were no directional changes in community species composition. The lack of directional change as measured at a fine scale is characteristic of tidal freshwater wetlands in which variations in the abundance of individual species, especially annuals, are responsible for most short-term change in species composition. Changes in the composition of plant communities are interpreted as responses to variations in vertical accretion, stability of habitat types, invasive plant species, and herbivores. In the future, vegetation changes are likely to occur as a result of the intrusion of brackish water and increased flooding associated with global climate change and sea level rise. This long-term study establishes a baseline from which potential future changes to tidal freshwater wetlands can be better understood.