Tolerance between non-resource stress and an invader determines competition intensity and importance in an invaded estuary.
The competition-to-stress hypothesis suggests that some competitively disadvantaged species are excluded from higher inundation estuaries due to abiotic stress (high flooding level) and from lower inundation estuaries by competition. How abiotic and biotic stress interactions affect plant growth and whether competition intensity and importance are stable along environmental gradients is a controversial subject. We explored the influence of two factors, and we clarified that inundation stress and invasion competition are the main reasons leading to the traits exhibited by target plant Suaeda salsa and population presence changes. Our results indicated that when the flooding height exceeded 13.4 cm, the S. salsa mortality rate was 90%-100%. At the lower flooding heights (<13.4 cm), the S. salsa mortality rate when neighboring plants were present was 77.7%-100%, whereas, without neighbors it was 30.9%-83.7%. The invader Spartina alterniflora inhibited S. salsa plant height by 48%-77%, whereas the S. alterniflora inhibited S. salsa density by 11%-98% and reduced its biomass by 50.5%-90.1%. The changes in competition intensity and importance showed that the S. alterniflora had a distinct impact from the early germinant period to growing period (from May to July), finally stable no differences along the flooding height in the maturity period. At the same flooding level, the analysis of above and belowground competition by S. alterniflora showed that aboveground and belowground competition are the main causes of individual S. salsa inhibition. Our results confirm the competitive stress hypothesis, which is that competition shapes individual traits and population presence in the context of abiotic stress. This conclusion can guide the management and protection of native plants under biological invasion in a stressful environment.