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Ecology. 2010 Sep;91(9):2696-704.

Comparing ecosystem engineering efficiency of two plant species with contrasting growth strategies.

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Netherlands Institute of Ecology, P.O. Box 140, 4400 AC Yerseke, The Netherlands.


Many ecosystems are greatly affected by ecosystem engineering, such as coastal salt marshes, where macrophytes trap sediment by reducing hydrodynamic energy. Nevertheless, little is known about the costs and benefits that are imposed on engineering species by the traits that underlie their ecosystem engineering capacity. We addressed this topic by comparing ecosystem engineering efficiency defined as the benefit-cost ratio per unit of biomass investment for two species from the intertidal habitat: the stiff grass Spartina anglica and the flexible grass Puccinellia maritima. These species were selected for their ability to modify their habitat by trapping large quantities of sediment despite their contrasting growth form. On a biomass basis, dissipation of hydrodynamic energy from waves (a proxy for benefits associated with ecosystem engineering capability as it relates to the sediment trapping capability) was strikingly similar for both salt marsh species, indicating that both species are equally effective in modifying their habitat. The drag forces per unit biomass (a proxy for costs associated with ecosystem engineering ability as it relates to the requirements on tissue construction and shoot anchoring to prevent breaking and/or washing away) were slightly higher in the species with flexible shoots. As a result, stiff Spartina vegetation had slightly higher ecosystem engineering efficiency, due to lower engineering costs rather than to a higher engineering effect. Thus, Spartina is a slightly more efficient rather than a more effective ecosystem engineer. Ecosystem engineering efficiency was found to be a species-specific characteristic, independent of vegetation density and relatively constant in space. Analyzing ecosystem engineering by quantifying trade-offs offers a useful way toward developing a better understanding of different engineering strategies.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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