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Title: Intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of organic matter processing along phosphorus and salinity gradients in coastal wetlands

Climate change is accelerating sea‐level rise and saltwater intrusion in coastal regions world‐wide and interacting with large‐scale changes in species composition in coastal wetlands. Quantifying macrophyte litter breakdown along freshwater‐to‐marine coastal gradients is needed to predict how carbon stores will respond to shifts in both macrophyte communities and water chemistry under changing environmental conditions.

To test the interactive drivers of changing species identity and water chemistry, we performed a reciprocal transplant of four macrophyte litter species in seven sites along freshwater‐to‐marine gradients in the Florida Coastal Everglades. We measured surface water chemistry (dissolved organic carbon, total nitrogen and total phosphorus), litter chemistry (% nitrogen, % phosphorus, change in N:P molar ratio, % cellulose and % lignin as proxies for recalcitrance) and litter breakdown rates (k/degree‐day).

Direct effects of salinity and surface water nutrients were the strongest drivers ofk, but unexpectedly, litter chemistry did not correlate with litterk. However, salinity strongly correlated with changes in litter chemistry, whereby litter incubated in brackish and marine wetlands was more labile and gained more phosphorus compared with litter in freshwater marshes. Our results suggest that litterkin coastal wetlands is explained by species‐specific interactions among water and litter chemistries. Water nutrient availability was an important predictor of breakdown rates across species, but breakdown rates were only explained by the carbon recalcitrance of litter in the species with the slowest breakdown (Cladium jamaicense), indicating the importance of carbon structure, and species identity on breakdown rates.

Synthesis. In oligotrophic ecosystems, nutrients are often the primary driver of organic matter breakdown. However, we found that variation in macrophyte breakdown rates in oligotrophic coastal wetlands was also explained by salinity and associated seawater chemistry, emphasising the need to understand how saltwater intrusion will alter organic matter processing in wetlands. Our results suggest that marine subsidies associated with sea‐level rise have the potential to accelerate leaf litter breakdown. The increase in breakdown rates could either be buffered or increase further as sea‐level rise also shifts macrophyte community composition to more or less recalcitrant species.

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Award ID(s):
2025954 1832229
Author(s) / Creator(s):
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Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Ecology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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