Species-specific responses of a marsh-forest ecotone plant community responding to climate change.
Ecotones are responsive to environmental change and pave a path for succession as they move across the landscape. We investigated the biotic and abiotic filters to species establishment on opposite ends of a tidal marsh-forest ecotone that is moving inland in response to sea level rise. We transplanted four plant species common to the ecotone to the leading or trailing edge of the migrating ecotone, with and without caging to protect them from ungulate herbivores. We found that species exhibited an individualistic response to abiotic and biotic pressures in this ecotone; three species performed better at the leading edge of the ecotone in the coastal forest, whereas one performed better at the trailing edge in the marsh. Specifically, grass species Phragmites australis and Panicum virgatum grew more in the low light and low salinity conditions of the leading edge of the ecotone (forest), whereas the shrub Iva frutescens grew better in the high light, high salinity conditions of the trailing edge of the ecotone (marsh). Furthermore, of the four species, only P. australis was affected by the biotic pressure of herbivory by an introduced ungulate, Cervus nippon, which greatly reduced its biomass and survival at the leading edge (forest). P. australis is an aggressive invasive species and has been observed to dominate in the wake of migrating marsh-forest ecotones. Our findings detail the role of lower salinity stress to promote and herbivory pressure to inhibit the establishment of P. australis during shifts of this ecotone, and also highlight an interaction between two nonnative species, P. australis and C. nippon. Understanding migration of the marsh-forest ecotone and the factors controlling P. australis establishment are critical for marsh conservation in the face of sea level rise. More generally, our findings support the conclusion that the abiotic and biotic filters of a migrating ecotone shape the resulting community.