The dynamics of plant regeneration via seed and vegetative spread in coastal wetlands dictate the nature of community reassembly that takes place after hurricanes or sea level rise. The objectives of my project were to evaluate the potential effects of saltwater intrusion and flooding of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on seedling regeneration in coastal wetlands of the Gulf Coast. Specifically I tested hypotheses to determine for species in fresh, brackish and salt marshes of the Gulf Coast if 1) the pattern of seed germination and seedling recruitment differed with distance from the shoreline, and 2) seed germination and seedling recruitment for various species were reduced in higher levels of water depth and salinity. Regarding Hypothesis 1, seedling densities increased with distance from the shoreline in fresh and brackish water marshes while decreasing with distance from the shoreline in salt marshes. Also to test Hypothesis 1, I used a greenhouse seed bank assay to examine seed germination from seed banks collected at distances from the shoreline in response to various water depths and salinity levels using a nested factorial design. For all marsh types, the influence of water level and salinity on seed germination shifted with distance from the shoreline (i.e., three way interaction of the main effects of distance nested within site, water depth, and salinity). Data from the seed bank assay were also used to test Hypothesis 2. The regeneration of species from fresh, brackish, and salt marshes were reduced in conditions of high salinity and/or water, so that following hurricanes or sea level rise, seedling regeneration could be reduced. Among the species of these coastal marshes, there was some flexibility of response, so that at least some species were able to germinate in either high or low salinity. Salt marshes had a few fresher marsh species in the seed bank that would not germinate without a period of fresh water input (e.g., Sagittaria lancifolia) as well as salt water species (e.g., Avicennia germinans, Salicornia bigelovii). Nevertheless, the species richness of seeds germinating from the seed bank of freshwater marshes was reduced more than in salt marshes, indicating that freshwater marsh regeneration may be more affected by hurricanes and/or sea level rise than salt marshes. From the perspective of short-term seed germination and recruitment following hurricanes, species recruitment is dependent on the post-disturbance conditions of water and salinity.
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Vol. 29 • No. 1