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Marsh plants actively engineer their landscape

DURHAM, NC -- Marsh plants, far from being passive wallflowers, are "secret gardeners" that actively engineer their landscape to increase their species' odds of survival, says a team of scientists from Duke University and the University of Padova in Italy.

Scientists have long believed that the distribution of plants within a marsh is a passive adaption in which species grow at different elevations because that's where conditions like soil aeration and salinity best meet their needs.

But this team found intertidal marsh plants in Italy's famed Venetian lagoon were able to subtly tune, or adjust, their elevations by producing different amounts of organic soil, and trapping and accumulating different amounts of inorganic sediments as part of a complex interplay with the environment.

"Our study identifies the visible signature of a two-way feedback occurring between the vegetation and the landscape," said Marco Marani, professor of ecohydrology at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Pratt School of Engineering. "Each species builds up the elevation of its substrate to within a favorable range for its survival, much the way corals in the animal kingdom do."

The finding may help scientists better predict marsh ecosystems' resilience to climatic changes such as sea level rise.

"Obviously, this is not a conscious choice on the part of the plants," Marani said. "It's a natural mechanism -- how marshes work. We just didn't understand it in such detail until now."

The study appears this week in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team used numerical modeling to visualize the dynamic interactions of marsh ecosystems over time, and tested the models against detailed topographical surveys of elevations and distributions of plant species in the Venetian lagoon.

"We've been studying this same marsh for 15 years and, as in similar s

Contact: Tim Lucas
Duke University

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