, Volume 191, Issue 4, pp 1015–1024 | Cite as

Ecosystem engineering creates a new path to resilience in plants with contrasting growth strategies

  • Laura M. SoissonsEmail author
  • Marieke M. van Katwijk
  • Baoquan Li
  • Qiuying Han
  • Tom Ysebaert
  • Peter M. J. Herman
  • Tjeerd J. Bouma
Conservation ecology – original research


Plant species can be characterized by different growth strategies related to their inherent growth and recovery rates, which shape their responses to stress and disturbance. Ecosystem engineering, however, offers an alternative way to cope with stress: modifying the environment may reduce stress levels. Using an experimental study on two seagrass species with contrasting traits, the slow-growing Zostera marina vs. the fast-growing Zostera japonica, we explored how growth strategies versus ecosystem engineering may affect their resistance to stress (i.e. addition of organic material) and recovery from disturbance (i.e. removal of above-ground biomass). Ecosystem engineering was assessed by measuring sulphide levels in the sediment porewater, as seagrass plants can keep sulphide levels low by aerating the rhizosphere. Consistent with predictions, we observed that the fast-growing species had a high capacity to recover from disturbance. It was also more resistant to stress and still able to maintain high standing stock with increasing stress levels because of its ecosystem engineering capacity. The slow-growing species was not able to maintain its standing stock under stress, which we ascribe to a weak capacity for ecosystem engineering regarding this particular stress. Overall, our study suggests that the combination of low-cost investment in tissues with ecosystem engineering to alleviate stress creates a new path in the growth trade-off between investment in strong tissues or fast growth. It does so by being both fast in recovery and more resistant. As such low-cost ecosystem engineering may occur in more species, we argue that it should be considered in assessing plant resilience.


Recovery from disturbance Resistance to stress Seagrass Sulphide intrusion 



This study was conducted as part of the NSFC-NWO “Water ways, Harbours, Estuaries and Coastal Engineering” scheme, and it was co-supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. NSFC41061130543) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (no. 843.10.003). We thank the local managers from Moon Lake for their interest and support in implementing the experiments. We are also grateful to the students from the Yantai Institute for Coastal zone research-Chinese Academy of Sciences (YIC-CAS) for their help and time during field experiments and measurements done in China.

Author contribution statement

LMS, MMvK, TY, PMJH and TJB conceived and designed the experiment. LMS, BL and QH executed and analysed the data collected as part of the field manipulative experiment. LMS, MMvK and TJB wrote the manuscript, and other authors provided editorial advice.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Estuarine and Delta Systems (EDS), NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea ResearchUtrecht UniversityYersekeThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Sciences, Institute for Wetland and Water Research, Faculty of ScienceRadboud University NijmegenNijmegenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Yantai Institute of Coastal Zone Research-Chinese Academy of Sciences (YIC-CAS)ShandongChina
  4. 4.MARBEC, Univ. Montpellier-CNRS-Ifremer-IRDSèteFrance
  5. 5.DeltaresDelftThe Netherlands

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