A trade-off between competitive ability and stress tolerance has been hypothesized and empirically supported to explain the zonation of species across stress gradients for a number of systems. Since stress often reduces plant productivity, one might expect a pattern of decreasing productivity across the zones of the stress gradient. However, this pattern is often not observed in coastal wetlands that show patterns of zonation along a salinity gradient. To address the potentially complex relationship between stress, zonation, and productivity in coastal wetlands, we developed a model of plant biomass as a function of resource competition and salinity stress. Analysis of the model confirms the conventional wisdom that a trade-off between competitive ability and stress tolerance is a necessary condition for zonation. It also suggests that a negative relationship between salinity and production can be overcome if (1) the supply of the limiting resource increases with greater salinity stress or (2) nutrient use efficiency increases with increasing salinity. We fit the equilibrium solution of the dynamic model to data from Louisiana coastal wetlands to test its ability to explain patterns of production across the landscape gradient and derive predictions that could be tested with independent data. We found support for a number of the model predictions, including patterns of decreasing competitive ability and increasing nutrient use efficiency across a gradient from freshwater to saline wetlands. In addition to providing a quantitative framework to support the mechanistic hypotheses of zonation, these results suggest that this simple model is a useful platform to further build upon, simulate and test mechanistic hypotheses of more complex patterns and phenomena in coastal wetlands.
Keywords: coastal wetland; productivity; resource competition; resource use efficiency; salinity; stress; zonation.
© 2018 by the Ecological Society of America.