Die-offs of cordgrass are pervasive throughout western Atlantic salt marshes, yet understanding of the mechanisms precipitating these events is limited. We tested whether herbivory by the native crab, Sesarma reticulatum, is generating die-offs of cordgrass that are currently occurring on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (U.S.A.), by manipulating crab access to cordgrass transplanted into die-off areas and healthy vegetation. We surveyed 12 Cape Cod marshes to investigate whether the extent of cordgrass die-off on creek banks, where die-offs are concentrated, was related to local Sesarma grazing intensity and crab density. We then used archived aerial images to examine whether creek bank die-off areas have expanded over the past 2 decades and tested the hypothesis that release from predation, leading to elevated Sesarma densities, is triggering cordgrass die-offs by tethering crabs where die-offs are pervasive and where die-offs have not yet been reported. Intensity of crab grazing on transplanted cordgrass was an order of magnitude higher in die-off areas than in adjacent vegetation. Surveys revealed that Sesarma herbivory has denuded nearly half the creek banks in Cape Cod marshes, and differences in crab-grazing intensity among marshes explained >80% of variation in the extent of the die-offs. Moreover, the rate of die-off expansion and area of marsh affected have more than doubled since 2000. Crab-tethering experiments suggest that release from predation has triggered elevated crab densities that are driving these die-offs, indicating that disruption of predator-prey interactions may be generating the collapse of marsh ecosystems previously thought to be exclusively under bottom-up control.
©2008 Society for Conservation Biology.