Plant and Soil

, Volume 280, Issue 1–2, pp 305–322 | Cite as

Comparison of Belowground Biomass in C3- and C4-Dominated Mixed Communities in a Chesapeake Bay Brackish Marsh

  • Colin J. Saunders
  • J. Patrick Megonigal
  • James F. Reynolds


Belowground biomass is a critical factor regulating ecosystem functions of coastal marshes, including soil organic matter (SOM) accumulation and the ability of these systems to keep pace with sea-level rise. Nevertheless, belowground biomass responses to environmental and vegetation changes have been given little emphasis marsh studies. Here we present a method using stable carbon isotopes and color to identify root and rhizomes of Schoenoplectus americanus (Pers.) Volk. ex Schinz and R. Keller (C3) and Spartina patens (Ait.) Muhl. (C4) occurring in C3− and C4-dominated communities in a Chesapeake Bay brackish marsh. The functional significance of the biomass classes we identified is underscored by differences in their chemistry, depth profiles, and variation in biomass and profiles relative to abiotic and biotic factors. C3 rhizomes had the lowest concentrations of cellulose (29.19%) and lignin (14.43%) and the lowest C:N (46.97) and lignin:N (0.16) ratios. We distinguished two types of C3 roots, and of these, the dark red C3 roots had anomalously high C:N (195.35) and lignin:N (1.14) ratios, compared with other root and rhizome classes examined here and with previously published values. The C4-dominated community had significantly greater belowground biomass (4119.1 g m−2) than the C3-dominated community (3256.9 g m−2), due to greater total root biomass and a 3.6-fold higher C3-root:rhizome ratio in the C4-dominated community. C3 rhizomes were distributed significantly shallower in the C4-dominated community, while C3 roots were significantly deeper. Variability in C3 rhizome depth distributions was explained primarily by C4 biomass, and C3 roots were explained primarily by water table height. Our results suggest that belowground biomass in this system is sensitive to slight variations in water table height (across an 8 cm range), and that the reduced overlap between C3 and C4 root profiles in the C4-dominated community may account for the greater total root biomass observed in that community. Given that future elevated atmospheric CO2 and accelerated sea-level rise are likely to increase C3 abundance in Atlantic and Gulf coast marshes, investigations that quantify how patterns of C3 and C4 belowground biomass respond to environmental and biological factors stand to improve our understanding of ecosystem-wide impacts of global changes on coastal wetlands.


brackish marsh C3 C4 Chesapeake Bay rhizome root stable carbon isotope 



soil organic matter




carbon dioxide




13C abundance relative to standard Peedee Belemnite


Smithsonian Environmental Research Center


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Copyright information

© Springer 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colin J. Saunders
    • 1
    • 2
  • J. Patrick Megonigal
    • 3
  • James F. Reynolds
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  2. 2.Southeast Environmental Research CenterFlorida International UniversityMiamiUSA
  3. 3.Smithsonian Environmental Research CenterEdgewaterUSA

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