Ecotones represent locations where vegetation change is likely to occur as a result of climate and other environmental changes. Using a model of an ecotone vulnerable to such future changes, we estimated the resilience of the ecotone to disturbances. The specific ecotone is that between two different vegetation types, salinity-tolerant and salinity-intolerant, along a gradient in groundwater salinity. In the case studied, each vegetation type, through soil feedback loops, promoted local soil salinity levels that favor itself in competition with the other type. Bifurcation analysis was used to study the system of equations for the two vegetation types and soil salinity. Alternative stable equilibria, one for salinity-tolerant and one for salinity intolerant vegetation, were shown to exist over a region of the groundwater salinity gradient, bounded by two bifurcation points. This region was shown to depend sensitively on parameters such as the rate of upward infiltration of salinity from groundwater into the soil due to evaporation. We showed also that increasing diffusion rates of vegetation can lead to shrinkage of the range between the two bifurcation points. Sharp ecotones are typical of salt-tolerant vegetation (mangroves) near the coastline and salt-intolerant vegetation inland, even though the underlying elevation and groundwater salinity change very gradually. A disturbance such as an input of salinity to the soil from a storm surge could upset this stable boundary, leading to a regime shift of salinity-tolerant vegetation inland. We showed, however, that, for our model as least, a simple pulse disturbance would not be sufficient; the salinity would have to be held at a high level, as a 'press', for some time. The approach used here should be generalizable to study the resilience of a variety of ecotones to disturbances.
Additional publication details
Towards a theory of ecotone resilience: coastal vegetation on a salinity gradient