Wigeongrass (Ruppia maritima L.): a literature review

Resource Publication 10




Wigeongrass (Ruppia maritima L.) is a submersed macrophyte of nearly cosmopolitan distribution and worldwide importance as a waterfowl food. Unfortunately, the plant no longer inhabits vast areas disturbed by human activities. Taxonomic status of the plant is uncertain, especially in North America. In mild climates, in habitats subject to environmental extremes, the plant behaves as an annual (vegetation perishes), or as a perennial in deeper, more stable habitats (some vegetative parts grow year round). Drupelets (seeds) provide a mechanism for wigeongrass to survive periods of drought and excessive water salinity. These sexual propagules can be washed ashore or carried by birds or fish for long distances.Wigeongrass mostly occurs in temporarily to permanently flooded mesohaline-hyperhaline estuarine wetlands, but it also occurs inland in fresh to hypersaline palustrine and lacustrine wetlands. Most populations inhabit warm, relatively unpolluted, and well lit waters <2.0 m deep where fetches and wave action are not great. The species is probably best adapted to stable water levels but can tolerate significant water level fluctuations, including periodic exposure in tidal areas. Robust growth occurs in areas of slow current. Wigeongrass is alone among the submersed North American angiosperms in tolerance to high salinity, but it is likely at a competitive disadvantage among specialist taxa in soft or acidic waters. The species grows in nearly all common bottom substrates, but growth is favored by aerobic and low H2S conditions. Turbidity frequently limits wigeongrass growth in waters overlying easily suspendible bottom substrates.Wigeongrass often occurs in monotypic stands, yet grows with many other submersed and emergent macrophytes. Dominance in certain wetlands sometimes alternates with dominance by other submersed macrophytes as salinities, seasonal temperature cycles, or other environmental factors change. The shading effect of metaphytic, planktonic, or epiphytic algae often reduces production.Wigeongrass and its detritus provide food and cover for a large invertebrate biota, although direct consumption of the living plants is minimal. Wigeongrass beds in coastal wetlands are heavily used by fish. The plant is recognized worldwide as an important food of migrant and wintering waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds. In subtropical climates, wintering waterfowl can quickly consume entire stands.Propagation and management of wigeongrass has occurred for nearly 60 years in the southern and eastern United States. During the seventies and eighties, sophisticated water level and salinity management techniques have been developed to encourage growth of the plant.Future research should concentrate on determining the means to reduce light-limiting turbidity in many wetland types; understanding the ways in which human activities on and near wetlands affect wigeongrass production; and developing reliable and predictable techniques to stimulate wigeongrass production by water level manipulations and other means in different environmental settings. Trophic interactions and the effects of biomanipulation of fish populations in managed wigeongrass habitat--now little understood--also require more study.

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Federal Government Series
Wigeongrass (Ruppia maritima L.): a literature review
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Resource Publication
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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Publisher location:
Washington, DC
Contributing office(s):
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
58 pp.
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