, Volume 170, Issue 3, pp 789–798 | Cite as

Post-mortem ecosystem engineering by oysters creates habitat for a rare marsh plant

  • Hongyu Guo
  • Steven C. Pennings
Community ecology - Original research


Oysters are ecosystem engineers in marine ecosystems, but the functions of oyster shell deposits in intertidal salt marshes are not well understood. The annual plant Suaeda linearis is associated with oyster shell deposits in Georgia salt marshes. We hypothesized that oyster shell deposits promoted the distribution of Suaeda linearis by engineering soil conditions unfavorable to dominant salt marsh plants of the region (the shrub Borrichia frutescens, the rush Juncus roemerianus, and the grass Spartina alterniflora). We tested this hypothesis using common garden pot experiments and field transplant experiments. Suaeda linearis thrived in Borrichia frutescens stands in the absence of neighbors, but was suppressed by Borrichia frutescens in the with-neighbor treatment, suggesting that Suaeda linearis was excluded from Borrichia frutescens stands by interspecific competition. Suaeda linearis plants all died in Juncus roemerianus and Spartina alterniflora stands, regardless of neighbor treatments, indicating that Suaeda linearis is excluded from these habitats by physical stress (likely water-logging). In contrast, Borrichia frutescens, Juncus roemerianus, and Spartina alterniflora all performed poorly in Suaeda linearis stands regardless of neighbor treatments, probably due to physical stresses such as low soil water content and low organic matter content. Thus, oyster shell deposits play an important ecosystem engineering role in influencing salt marsh plant communities by providing a unique niche for Suaeda linearis, which otherwise would be rare or absent in salt marshes in the southeastern US. Since the success of Suaeda linearis is linked to the success of oysters, efforts to protect and restore oyster reefs may also benefit salt marsh plant communities.


Oyster shell Suaeda linearis Microhabitat Competition Salt marsh 



We thank Jane Buck, Christine Ewers, Daniel Saucedo, Jacob Shalack, Kazimierz Więski, and Yihui Zhang for field assistance, and John Silander and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments. The experiments described in this paper complied with the current laws of the United States. This is a contribution of the Georgia Coastal Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research program, which is funded by NSF (OCE06-20959). This is contribution number 1014 from the University of Georgia Marine Institute.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology and BiochemistryUniversity of HoustonHoustonUSA

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