Whether disturbances alter salt marsh soil structure dramatically affects Spartina alterniflora recolonization rate.
Disturbance regimes are shifting in response to climate change, land-use change, species' invasions, and other stressors, challenging ecologists to improve understanding of the mechanisms controlling plant recovery under different conditions. In this study, we investigate mechanisms that underpin plant recolonization of two types of disturbance: disturbances that remove standing plant biomass, but leave the underlying soil structure largely intact, and those that remove standing biomass and physically disrupt soil structure. In the southeastern United States, salt marshes, drought and invasive feral hogs (Sus scrofa) are associated with disturbances of these respective types and both leave behind mudflats dotted with patches of cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the system's dominant foundation species. To test how disturbance type and remnant patch size may interact to affect cordgrass recolonization, we transplanted replicate cordgrass patches of three sizes into one mudflat that experienced vegetation-only disturbance (VD) during a recent drought, and a second mudflat where hog activities had disrupted the soil structure creating a soil+vegetation disturbance (soil+VD). Over one year, we monitored plant performance and properties of soil. Compared with the drought-associated VD where patches, regardless of their size, expanded vigorously, large and medium patches grew little and smaller patches even less in the hog-associated soil+VD mudflat. Moreover while biogeochemical properties varied little in the VD compared with adjacent vegetated marsh areas, the mudflats with soil+VD had less soil-binding organic matter and, hence, were too soft to support crab burrows, leading to a reduction in oxygen availability and cordgrass expansion. These results indicate that cordgrass recovery is far faster from disturbances that do not degrade soil structure than those that do and therefore advocate for disturbance-specific management strategies. Specifically, while transplanting patches is effective in restoring marshes disturbed by drought, wrack, or other factors that leave soil structure intact, preventative measures, like hog population culling, are essential to mitigating the ecological impacts of soil structure-altering disturbances.