Impacts of invasive Phragmites australis on diamondback terrapin nesting in Chesapeake Bay.
The range expansion of exotic plant species, including the invasive reed Phragmites australis, causes widespread structural and functional changes to coastal ecosystems along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America. Native estuarine species, such as the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), are at risk of adverse effects from rapid habitat changes due to exotic invasions. Diamondback terrapins currently face population threats including by-catch mortality in crab pots, predation, and habitat loss, and populations may continue to suffer if deleterious plant invasions into preferred nesting habitats are left unchecked. We examined the extent to which Phragmites affects nesting of a breeding population of diamondback terrapins at Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of Virginia, where Phragmites has recently expanded into known areas of terrapin nesting. With data collected from the 2015 nesting season, we quantified the extent to which Phragmites shading could impact nest incubation temperature and determined how Phragmites density impacts the risk of rhizome invasion into nests. We conclude that Phragmites cover greater than 50% would decrease incubation temperatures of terrapin nests sufficiently to produce predominantly male hatchlings. Phragmites cover had no observed effect on root growth into simulated nests, but cover by other dune plant species explained observed trends in root growth. These results suggest that terrapins may be negatively impacted by Phragmites expansion into open nesting sites. Breeding site fidelity exhibited by terrapins and other estuarine species could limit the ability of their populations to adjust to rapid coastal expansion of invasive plant species.