Sudden and extensive dieback of the perennial marsh grass, Spartina alterniflora Loisel (smooth cordgrass), which dominates regularly flooded salt marshes along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coastlines, occurred in the coastal zone of Louisiana. The objectives of this study were to assess soil and plant conditions in dieback areas of the Barataria-Terrebonne estuarine system as well as vegetative recovery during and after this dieback event. Multiple dieback sites were examined along 100 km of shoreline from the Atchafalaya River to the Mississippi River during the period from June 2000 through September 2001. The species primarily affected was S. alterniflora; sympatric species such as Avicennia germinans (L.) Stearn (black mangrove) and Juncus roemerianus Scheele (needlegrass rush) showed no visible signs of stress. The pattern of marsh dieback was distinctive with greatest mortality in the marsh interior, suggesting a correlation with local patterns of soil chemistry and/or hydrology. Little or no expansion of dieback occurred subsequent to the initial event, and areas with 50 percent or less mortality in the fall of 2000 had completely recovered by April 2001. Recovery was slower in interior marshes with 90 percent or greater mortality initially. However, regenerating plants in dieback areas showing some recovery were robust, and reproductive output was high, indicating that the causative agent was no longer present and that post-dieback soil conditions were actually promoting plant growth. Stands of other species within or near some dieback sites remained largely unchanged or expanded (A. germinans) into the dead salt marsh.
The cause of the dieback is currently unknown. Biotic agents and excessive soil waterlogging/high sulfide were ruled out as primary causes of this acute event, although they could have contributed to overall plant stress and/or interacted with the primary agent to cause plant mortality. Our observations over the 15 month study specifically do not support the contention that dieback was caused by excessive grazing by Littoraria irrorata (marsh periwinkle). Instead, the data show that snails were responding to plant mortality and played an important role in rapid degradation of dead material in some areas. The dieback event was coincident with an extreme drought, low river discharge, and low sea level. These conditions could have caused plant mortality by directly decreasing water availability, increasing salinity, and/or causing oxidation and acidification of soils. The latter scenario was supported by findings of higher pyrite and acid-extractable aluminum and iron, higher acidification potential of dieback soils, and higher concentrations of aluminum and iron in dieback plant tissues (indicating uptake of potentially toxic metals) when compared to reference marshes showing no dieback. The implication of these findings is that periodic weather extremes may play a greater role in shaping coastal plant communities than has previously been recognized. Although such events may not be controlled directly, the resilience and recovery of the system may be altered by management. Such considerations will become increasingly important as global climate changes and human pressures in the coastal zone grow.
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USGS Numbered Series
Salt marsh dieback in coastal Louisiana: survey of plant and soil conditions in Barataria and Terrebonne basins, June 2000-September 2001