Ecosystem engineering by plants on wave-exposed intertidal flats is governed by relationships between effect and response traits

Maike Heuner, Alexandra Silinski, Jonas Schoelynck, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Sara Puijalon, Peter Troch, Elmar Fuchs, Boris Schröder, Uwe Schröder, Patrick Meire, Stijn Temmerman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

44 Scopus citations


In hydrodynamically stressful environments, some species-known as ecosystem engineers-are able to modify the environment for their own benefit. Little is known however, about the interaction between functional plant traits and ecosystem engineering. We studied the responses of Scirpus tabernaemontani and Scirpus maritimus to wave impact in fullscale flume experiments. Stem density and biomass were used to predict the ecosystem engineering effect of wave attenuation. Also the drag force on plants, their bending angle after wave impact and the stem biomechanical properties were quantified as both responses of stress experienced and effects on ecosystem engineering. We analyzed lignin, cellulose, and silica contents as traits likely effecting stress resistance (avoidance, tolerance). Stem density and biomass were strong predictors for wave attenuation, S. maritimus showing a higher effect than S. tabernaemontani. The drag force and drag force per wet frontal area both differed significantly between the species at shallow water depths (20 cm). At greater depths (35 cm), drag forces and bending angles were significantly higher for S. maritimus than for S. tabernaemontani. However, they do not differ in drag force per wet frontal area due to the larger plant surface of S. maritimus. Stem resistance to breaking and stem flexibility were significantly higher in S. tabernaemontani, having a higher cellulose concentration and a larger cross-section in its basal stem parts. S. maritimus had clearly more lignin and silica contents in the basal stem parts than S. tabernaemontani. We concluded that the effect of biomass seems more relevant for the engineering effect of emergent macrophytes with leaves than species morphology: S. tabernaemontani has avoiding traits with minor effects on wave attenuation; S. maritimus has tolerating traits with larger effects. This implies that ecosystem engineering effects are directly linked with traits affecting species stress resistance and responding to stress experienced.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0138086
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number9
StatePublished - 14 Sep 2015
Externally publishedYes


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