Do predators have a role to play in wetland ecosystem functioning? An experimental study in New England salt marshes

Oswald J. Schmitz and 1 other contributor

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    The historical ecological paradigm of wetland ecosystems emphasized the role of physical or "bottom-up" factors in maintaining functions and services. However, recent studies have shown that the loss of predators in coastal salt marshes can lead to a significant reduction in wetland extent due to overgrazing of vegetation by herbivores. Such studies indicate that consumers or "top-down" factors may play a much larger role in the maintenance of wetland ecosystems than was previously thought. The objective of this study was to evaluate whether altering top-down control by manipulating the presence of predators can lead to measurable changes in salt marsh ecosystem properties. Between May and August of 2015 and 2016, we established exclosure and enclosure cages within three New England coastal wetland areas and manipulated the presence of green crab predators to assess how they and their fiddler and purple marsh crab prey affect changes in ecosystem properties. Predator presence was associated with changes in soil nitrogen and aboveground biomass at two of the three field sites, though the magnitude and direction of these effects varied from site to site. Further, path analysis results indicate that across field sites, a combination of bottom-up and top-down factors influenced changes in measured variables. These results challenge the growing consensus that consumers have strong effects, indicating instead that predator impacts may be highly context-dependent.