Document Details

Title Sea-level rise and the emergence of a keystone grazer alter the geomorphic evolution and ecology of southeast US salt marshes
Archive All Files / Documents / Publications / Journal Articles

Keystone species have large ecological effects relative to their abundance and have been identified in many ecosystems. However, global change is pervasively altering environmental conditions, potentially elevating new species to keystone roles. Here, we reveal that a historically innocuous grazer—the marsh crab Sesarma reticulatum—is rapidly reshaping the geomorphic evolution and ecological organization of southeastern US salt marshes now burdened by rising sea levels. Our analyses indicate that sea-level rise in recent decades has widely outpaced marsh vertical accretion, increasing tidal submergence of marsh surfaces, particularly where creeks exhibit morphologies that are unable to efficiently drain adjacent marsh platforms. In these increasingly submerged areas, cordgrass decreases belowground root:rhizome ratios, causing substrate hardness to decrease to within the optimal range for Sesarma burrowing. Together, these bio-physical changes provoke Sesarma to aggregate in high-density grazing and burrowing fronts at the heads of tidal creeks (hereafter, creekheads). Aerial-image analyses reveal that resulting "Sesarma-grazed" creekheads increased in prevalence from 10 ± 2% to 29 ± 5% over the past <25 y and, by tripling creek-incision rates relative to nongrazed creekheads, have increased marsh-landscape drainage density by 8 to 35% across the region. Field experiments further demonstrate that Sesarma-grazed creekheads, through their removal of vegetation that otherwise obstructs predator access, enhance the vulnerability of macrobenthic invertebrates to predation and strongly reduce secondary production across adjacent marsh platforms. Thus, sea-level rise is creating conditions within which Sesarma functions as a keystone species that is driving dynamic, landscape-scale changes in salt-marsh geomorphic evolution, spatial organization, and species interactions.

Contributors Sinead M. Crotty, Collin Ortals, Thomas M. Pettengill, Luming Shi, Maitane Olabarrieta, Matthew A. Joyce, Andrew H. Altieri, Elise Morrison, Thomas S. Bianchi, Christopher B. Craft, Mark D. Bertness and Christine Angelini

Crotty, S.M., Ortals, C., Pettengill, T.M., Shi, L., Olabarrieta, M., Joyce, M.A., Altieri, A.H., Morrison, E., Bianchi, T.S., Craft, C.B., Bertness, M.D. and Angelini, C. 2020. Sea-level rise and the emergence of a keystone grazer alter the geomorphic evolution and ecology of southeast US salt marshes. PNAS. 117:17891-17902. (DOI:

Key Words Biodiversity, Bioturbation, Ecosystem engineer, Herbivory, Morphodynamics, Student Publication, UGAMI Publication
File Date 2020
Web Link Web link
view/download Web link

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grants OCE-9982133, OCE-0620959, OCE-1237140 and OCE-1832178. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.