Algal-Induced Biogeomorphic Feedbacks Lay the Groundwork for Coastal Wetland Development

Roeland C. van de Vijsel*, Jim van Belzen, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Daphne van der Wal, Johan van de Koppel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Ecosystem establishment under adverse geophysical conditions is often studied within the “windows of opportunity” framework, identifying disturbance-free periods (e.g., calm wave climate) where species can overcome establishment thresholds. However, the role of biogeophysical interactions in this framework is less well understood. The establishment of saltmarsh vegetation on tidal flats, for example, is limited by abiotic factors such as hydrodynamics, sediment stability and drainage. On tidal flats, raised sediment ridges colonized by algal mats (Vaucheria sp.) appear to accomodate high densities of plant seedlings. Such ridges were previously found to have higher sediment strength than substratum without algae. Here, we investigate whether these measurements can be explained by geophysical factors only, or that biological (Vaucheria-induced) processes influence tidal marsh establishment by forming stabilized bedforms. We performed two experiments under controlled mesocosm conditions, to test the hypotheses that (a) Vaucheria grows better on elevated topographic relief, that (b) the binding force of their algal filaments increases sediment strength, and that (c) Vaucheria consequently creates elevated topographic relief that further facilitates algal growth. Our experimental results confirm the existence of this algal-induced biogeomorphic feedback cycle. These findings imply that benthic algae like Vaucheria may contribute significantly to tidal marsh formation by creating elevated and stabilized substratum. This suggests biogeophysical feedbacks can “widen” the windows of opportunity for further ecosystem establishment. Our results could be useful for the design of managed realignment projects aimed at restoring the unique ecosystem services of coastal wetlands, such as habitat biodiversity, carbon sequestration potential and nature-based flood defense.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2021JG006515
Pages (from-to)1-17
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


  • algae
  • biogeophysics
  • coastal wetlands
  • drainage
  • sediment strength
  • vegetation


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