Environmental gradients, plant distribution, and species richness in arctic salt marsh near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska

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Spatial patterns of plant cover and species composition in arctic salt marsh and salt affected tundra near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska reflect gradients in elevation, soil conductivity, and soil concentrations of the ions prevalent in seawater. Soil conductivity and soil concentrations of Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+, SO4= and Cl− were significantly related to site elevation, decreasing as elevation increased. Vascular plant species richness increased significantly as soil conductivity and soil ion concentrations decreased, and site elevation increased. Puccinellia phryganodes was the only species present in low elevation sites with low plant cover, high soil conductivity and high soil concentrations of Ca2+, Mg2+, Na+, K+, SO4= and Cl−. Mid-gradient sites were dominated by Carex subspathaceae. Plant cover at these sites was greater than at lower elevation sites, but bare ground was still present. Higher elevation sites had the lowest concentrations of soil ions and the lowest soil conductivities. These sites had little bare ground, contained as many as 16 species, and were dominated by Dupontia fischeri and Eriophorum angustifolium. Ordinations indicated that a complex topographic gradient related most closely to elevation and site distance from the coast best explains variation in the vegetation cover. Irregular deposition along the coastline partially or completely buried three sites in peat or sand up to 20 cm deep. Such rapid changes in plant cover and species composition contributes to the community patch mosaic typical of these marshes. Results suggest an individualistic response of plant species to the environmental gradients in salt marsh and salt affected tundra and are indicative of successional models developed in other marginal arctic environments.

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