Hurricane wrack generates landscape-level heterogeneity in coastal pine savanna

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Abstract

Wrack (vegetation debris) deposited by storm surges of major hurricanes along the northern Gulf of Mexico produces depressant effects that vary from partial to complete mortality of groundcover vegetation in coastal savannas. As wrack decomposes or is relocated by a subsequent hurricane, patches are opened to colonization. We postulated that patterns of wrack deposition and removal, coupled with differential responses by savanna plant species should produce alternate states of groundcover vegetation. We explored extreme effects of wrack deposited by Hurricane Katrina (2005) in savannas dominated by slash pine Pinus elliottii and cordgrass Spartina patens and located above mean high tide at the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Mississippi, USA. In 2008, we established plots in adjacent areas with and without wrack deposits. Almost no groundcover plant species occurred in wrack deposits compared to adjacent groundcover without wrack. We simulated redistribution of wrack during a new storm surge by removing wrack from replicated plots and depositing it in plots without wrack, recording plant species in treatment and control plots before, then one month and one year after manipulations. One year later, about half the species present before wrack addition (especially dominant graminoids) grew back through redistributed wrack, suggesting that some species were resistant to burial of limited amounts of wrack. Wrack removal resulted in germination and establishment of numerous herbaceous plant species not in undisturbed groundcover, doubling total aboveground numbers of species in the pine savanna and shifting groundcover communities to alternate states not present prior to Katrina. Removal of wrack opens space colonized by resilient species, including those transported in wrack and those surviving intervals between disturbances belowground. Wrack dynamics (deposition and removal) generated alternate states that resulted from resistance- and resilience-driven changes in different patches of groundcover in coastal savannas.

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