In the Northeast Pacific the nonnative seagrass Zostera japonica frequently exists at the same sites as the native seagrass Zostera marina. Although at some sites their vertical distributions overlap, at most sites in the Pacific Northwest there is a distinctive unvegetated zone between them. The objective of this study was to better understand why a gap between the lower limit of Z. japonica and the upper limit of Z. marina exists. To address this issue we carried out transplant experiments, conducted in situ monitoring of existing Z. japonica patches, and collected sediment samples at South Beach on Shaw Island, Washington, during the spring and summer of 2006. Transplant and in situ monitoring data indicate that survival and performance of Z. japonica are reduced lower in the intertidal zone. In addition, Z. japonica patches tended to be smaller and more spaced out at lower tidal heights. Although we found no Z. japonica seeds within or outside extant Z. japonica patches, high transplant mortality indicates that Z. japonica dispersal limitation is an unlikely cause of the unvegetated gap zone. Our field observations further suggest that herbivory, biotarbation, and epiphytes are unlikely causes of the gap pattern at our study site. Instead, we hypothesize that light limitation prevents Z. japonica from occurring lower in the intertidal. A review of published vertical distribution data for both Zostera species indicates that the lower limit of Z. japonica is relatively invariant among sites. In contrast, the upper limit of Z. marina is highly variable, ranging by more man 4 m within some subregions in Washington State. Consequently we hypodiesize that intersite variability in the vertical distribution of Z. marina is the primary driver of spatial variability in the presence of the unvegetated gap.
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