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Chapter 7c

Estuaries and Salt Marshes

Types of Estuaries
What is an estuary?

Classification based on
geomorphology and geological history

Classification based on stratification of

water & salinity distribution
Estuaries contd.
Partially enclosed coastal body of water

Interaction of

River runoff
Estuaries contd.

Classified by origin
Coastal plain (e.g.
Chesapeake Bay)
Fjord (common along
coasts on Alaska &
Bar built (common
along the U.S. Gulf & East
Tectonic (e.g. San
Francisco Bay)
Bay or Lagoon Behind a Barrier Beach
(North Carolina Coast)
Tectonic Estuary: San Francisco Bay
Milford Sound in Fiordland,
New Zealand
Mixing in estuaries

Vertically mixed
Typically shallow
and broad
Slightly stratified
Highly stratified
Salt wedge
Typically deep
and narrow
Fig. 12-5
a) Positive (Salt-wedge) Estuary
b) Negative Estuary
Physical Characteristics of
Wave action & currents
Physical Characteristics of
Estuaries contd.

Fluctuate in estuaries in relation to

Coriolis effect (rotation of Earth deflects flowing
Change is salinity in an estuary with change in
tide level or change in river discharge
Comparison of salinity fluctuations in the water
column with that interstitially in the bottom mud
Result of Coriolis effect on Salinity in the
north-south oriented Chesapeake Bay estuary
Chesapeake Bay
(Purple are represents anoxic waters)
Physical Characteristics of
Estuaries contd.
Substrate: variable depending on the type
of estuary

Most estuaries have soft, muddy substrates

carried into the estuary by seawater &
Massive storms & their accompanying floods
may deposit or remove vast amounts of
sediment in estuaries, causing severe
mortality of organisms.
Physical Characteristics of
Estuaries contd.
More variable in estuaries than in nearby
coastal waters
B/c of the smaller volume of water in estuaries &
larger surface area
Variable freshwater input (rivers on temperate
zones are colder in winter & warmer in summer
than the adjacent seawater)
Horizontal temp variation (range)
Vertical temp variation
Physical Characteristics of
Estuaries contd.
Wave action and currents

Relatively calm water; small fetch, relatively

shallow depth

Currents caused mainly by tidal action & river

Physical Characteristics of
Estuaries contd.

High b/c of large amount of suspended

Highest during maximum river flow
Minimum near the mouth of the estuary
Major ecological effect of turbidity:
decreased light penetration; decreased
photosynthesis; reduced productivity
Physical Characteristics of Estuaries contd.


Usually there is ample supply of oxygen in the

water column
Varies depending on temp & salinity distributions
in the estuary
Depleted in salt-wedge estuaries on deep
estuaries oxygen depletion may occur in bottom
waters as a result of vertical salinity stratification
Human activities are contributing to oxygen
depletion in estuaries & coastal waters
Biota of Estuaries
Faunal composition in estuaries (3 types)

Marine (largest group in numbers & species)

Stenohaline animals (unable or barely tolerate changes in salinity)
Euryhaline animals (capable of tolerating varying amounts of
changes in salinity)

Freshwater: Originate in freshwater; cannot tolerate salinities > 5


Brackish-water or estuarine fauna: Found in the middle reaches of

the estuary b/w 5 & 18 psu; e.g. Nereis diversicolor, Crassostrea,
Callinectes, Palaemonetes

Transitional components of estuarine fauna: migratory fishes; e.g.

Salmon, Eels; Penaeid shrimps that spend only part of their lives in
Adaptations of Estuarine Animals

Physiological adaptations
Osmosis: physical process in which water
passes through a semipermeable membrane
that separates two fluids of diff. salt conc., to
move from areas of lower to higher conc.
Osmoregulation: the ability to control the
conc. of salts or water in internal fluids
Osmoconformers: cannot control their
internal salt content
Osmoregulators: have physiological
mechanisms to control the salt content of their
internal fluids
move from
of substance
to lower

Water molecules
move through
membrane from
concentrated to
hypotonic fish
Drink water
Secrete salt
d urine
Numbers of species in each of the three major
components-marine, freshwater, and brackish-
water species
Some typical estuarine animals
Changes in the body fluids of Nereis diversicolor
with changes in salinity: wt. changes occurring
after the animals are transferred to 20% seawater
Osmotic concentration of body
fluids in relation to salinity change
Change in salinity of the blood of the crab,
Australoplax tridentata with a change in the
salinity of the external medium
Behavioral Adaptations of Estuarine
Burrow into the mud (some invertebrates)
Interstitial water has less variation in salinity &
temp than open water has
Less likely to be consumed by surface- or
water-dwelling predators
Migration of adults of estuarine crabs (e.g.
Blue crabs) to adjacent sea to breed
Juveniles of many fish species enter
estuaries where they feed & migrate back
to the sea as they grow
The life cycle of the blue crab Callinectes
sapidus in estuaries of the Atlantic coast of the
United States
Productivity, Organic Matter and
Food Sources in Estuaries
Phytoplankton, Benthic Diatoms, Sea Grasses, Salt
Primary productivity by algae is considered low relative to
salt marshes in some areas
Salt marsh productivity relatively high

Estuaries act as sinks for organic matter brought

down by rivers & in from sea

Estuaries have few herbivores that feed directly on


Most of the plant material are broken down to

detritus by bacterial action b/4 entering the various
food webs
Food Webs in Estuaries
Long thought to be primarily detritus based

Most detritus is digested by bacteria & other


Macroorganisms that consume detritus actually

feed, & are dependent on, those microorganisms
to break down the detritus into a usable food

Suspension feeders (e.g. clams)

Deposit feeders (e.g. polychaete worms)

Food Webs in Estuaries contd.
Dominant predators in estuaries: Fishes &
birds (e.g. ducks, geese, shorebirds, wading
birds, gulls, terns

Ontogenetic shift in prey consumption by

fish: from eating zooplankton to
macroinvertebrates, to other fishes

Trophic Relay: Much of the productivity of

fishes is ultimately lost to the estuary when
the fishes move offshore
The Food Web of a Typical Estuary
Food Webs in Estuaries contd.
Modern estuarine food webs have been
affected by humans

Eutrophication can lead to algal

blooms that preclude seagrasses from
living in estuaries

Overexploitation of oysters & other

filter feeders has probably had massive
impacts on our estuaries
Salt Marshes
Found in temperate & sub-polar estuaries & protected
marine shores & embayments

Are communities of emergent herbs, grasses, or low

shrubs rooted in soils inundated & drained alternately by
tidal action

Are Halophytes: can grow in soils with a high salt content

Develop where sediment accumulates

Dominate intertidal coasts of Atlantic North America South

of New England & northern coast of Gulf of Mexico &
Atlantic coast of South America

Less common on Pacific coasts of North & South America

The Distribution of Salt Marshes in the World
Areal Extent of Salt Marshes on the
Atlantic Coast of the United States
Salt Marshes contd
Buffer shorelines from storm damage &

Serve as biochemical filters on runoff

water entering estuaries

Serve as nursery grounds for juveniles of

many marine fish & crustaceans

Impacted by human activities

Environmental Services Provided by Salt
Environmental Characteristics of Salt

Show wide variations in environ.

factors, e.g. salinity, D.O. in soil

Salinity can vary from 20 to 40 psu;

may even reach > 100 psu in high
marsh soils

Marsh sediments can be highly anoxic

due in part to high microbial activity
Composition & Distribution of Salt
Are species poor b/c of high salinities & anoxic
conditions in the soil
Dominant plants are:

Animals associated with salt marshes are:

Crabs (e.g. Uca, Sesarma)
Mussels (Geukensia)
Snails (e.g. Littorina)
Small crustaceans (e.g. amphipods, shrimp)
Terrestrial insects, raccoons
Some Dominant Emergent Salt Marsh
Emergent Plants
Characteristic Animals Present in a Salt
Marsh at Low and High Tides on the Atlantic
Coast of North America
Tidal Creeks Penetrating into a Coastal Salt
Marsh on the Lower Coastal Plain of Georgia,
Zonation of Salt Marshes
Lowest Zone: creek bank & bottom; lacks
macrophytic vegetation; contains mainly infauna
Low Marsh (flooded daily by tides):
Dominated by S. alterniflora (tall form & shorter form)
High Marsh:
Dominated by S. patens; next zone is black rush
(Juncus gerardi) which is less tolerant of salty soil &
flooding that S. patens
Upper limit of the Marsh:
Marsh elder (Iva frutescens), a woody shrub which is
intolerant of tidal flooding & grows only where the soil
is well drained
Zonation Patterns of Salt Marshes of a
New England Marsh, USA
Zonation Patterns of Salt Marshes of
the Southern USA
Zonation Patterns of Salt Marshes of the
Pacific Coast, USA (San Francisco Bay)
Causes of Salt Marsh Zonation
Plant competition & physical stresses

Grazers are unimportant with regard to zonation

of salt marsh plants

Competitive dominance in New England


Iva frutescens > Juncus gerardi > Spartina patens >

S. alterniflora
S. alterniflora is able to live in low marsh area which is
waterlogged & has anoxic sediment that S. patens
cannot tolerate
Positive Plant-Animal Interactions in Salt

Salt marsh habitats are physically stressful

on plants that live in them

Some invertebrates living in marshes help

alleviate some of the stresses on the

On the seaward border of marshes in

southern New England, cordgrass growth
is limited by disturbance & nitrogen
Positive Plant-Animal Interactions in Salt
Marshes contd.

Mussels help alleviate both problems by:

Filter-feeding & depositing high-nitrogen fecal matter

on the roots & rhizomes of the cordgrass & in the

Buffer the seaward edge of the cordgrass against

physical disturbance by binding sediment & cordgrass
roots with their byssal threads

Cordgrass provide the anchoring material of roots for

the byssal threads of the mussels
Facultative Mutualism b/w the Filter-feeding Marsh
Mussel Geukensia demissa and Cordgrass on the
Atlantic Coast of North America
Change in competitive relations among marsh
plants under high & low nitrogen levels
Consumer control of Marsh vegetation

Natural marshes may be controlled by


Introduced rodent (nutria) decreased marsh

plant primary productivity on Louisiana Gulf

Snow geese control arctic marsh production of

Hudson Bay by feeding on the marsh plants
while supplying them with nitrogen through
Increases in snow goose population
of North America over the past 50 yrs
Geese exclusion cages, showing the
results of runaway herbivory by geese in
Hudson Bay
Map showing the massive spatial scale of the
destruction (in red) of Hudson Bay marshes
over the past 20 yrs
Consumer control of vegetation in the
extensive salt marshes of Georgia and
the Carolinas

**Natural marshes may be

Controlled by consumers

**Marsh snails (Littoraria irrorata)

impacts salt marshes

**Marsh snails at high density

Destroy cordgrass by ingesting
them & making them more
susceptible to fungal infection
through grazing scars
Impact of Predation on distribution and
abundance patterns of marsh plant organisms

Predation by blue crab (Callinectes sapidus)

Restricts the ribbed mussel Geukensia to high marsh

habitats in southern marshes

Excludes marsh periwinkles from places where they

cannot migrate out of the water at high tide

Killifish predation limits the snail Melampus,

juvenile fishes, & various amphipods to high
marsh in association with dense vegetation
The migration of the marsh periwinkle
Littoraria irrorata up the cordgrass blades to
avoid predation by blue crab
Effects of predation on some of the
salt marsh inhabitants
Human impacts on Salt marshes