Salt marsh establishment in poorly consolidated muddy systems: effects of surface drainage, elevation, and plant age

Haobing Cao, Zhenchang Zhu, Jim van Belzen, Olivier Gourgue, Johan van de Koppel, O. Stijn Temmerman, Peter M.J. Herman, Liquan Zhang, Lin Yuan, Tjeerd J. Bouma*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Conservation and restoration of salt marsh ecosystems are becoming increasingly important because of the many ecosystem services they provide. However, the processes controlling salt marsh establishment and persistence, especially on bare tidal flats in muddy areas, remain unclear. As muddy sediments typically experience a restriction of soil drainage, we expect that a surface drainage relief due to a heterogeneity topography, as might occur on the edge of tidal channels, can facilitate the establishment of salt marsh vegetation on muddy tidal flats. By means of a manipulative field experiment, using “Mega-Marsh Organ” mesocosms, we investigated the impact of surface drainage and elevation relative to mean sea level on (1) the survival of Spartina anglica seedlings from three different age classes: 1-yr, 3-month, and 1-week; and (2) the growth performance of mature S. anglica marsh tussocks. S. anglica seedling survival, especially in the establishment phase, was positively affected by better surface drainage, increases of seedling age, and higher elevation relative to mean sea level. That is, the survival rate of S. anglica seedlings at the end of 6th week increased from 0% (at surface water undrained, 1-week, 0 cm elevation) to 94.44% (at surface water drained, 1-yr, 90 cm elevation). In contrast, surface drainage did not affect the performance of large S. anglica marsh tussocks, as only increased elevation relative to mean sea level was shown to affect S. anglica tussock growth in terms of plant height, shoot numbers, and dry biomass. Based on our findings, we proposed a conceptual model to understand how surface drainage-driven feedbacks in a heterogeneous topography may be reinforced to induce salt marsh establishment in muddy systems. Further testing of present hypothesized model would be beneficial for insights into salt marsh establishment on tidal mudflats.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere03755
Pages (from-to)1-19
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • establishment
  • muddy sediment
  • plant age
  • relative elevation to mean sea level
  • salt marsh
  • surface drainage


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