Coping with waves: Plasticity in tidal marsh plants as self-adapting coastal ecosystem engineers

Alexandra Silinski, Ken Schoutens, Sara Puijalon, Jonas Schoelynck, Deirdre Luyckx, Peter Troch, Patrick Meire, Stijn Temmerman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Tidal marsh vegetation is increasingly valued for its role in ecosystem-based coastal protection due to its wave dissipating capacity. As the efficiency of wave dissipation is known to depend on specific vegetation properties, we quantified how these morphological, biochemical, and biomechanical properties of tidal marsh vegetation are, in turn, affected by wave exposure. This was achieved by field measurements at two locations, with contrasting wave exposure, in the brackish part of the Scheldt Estuary (SW Netherlands), where Scirpus maritimus is the dominant pioneer species. Our results show that shoots from more wave-exposed conditions developed significantly shorter and thicker stems than the ones growing in more sheltered conditions. Furthermore, we show that the more exposed shoots are more flexible whereas the shoots growing in more sheltered conditions are stiffer. This may indicate plasticity in response to wave exposure following a stress-avoidance strategy. Increasing stiffness was shown to be related to enhanced biogenic silica and lignin contents of the shoot tissue. These properties might affect the wave-attenuating capacity of the marsh as stiff plants are known to mitigate waves more effectively than flexible ones. However, we also found higher shoot densities on the exposed site, which may partly explain why higher relative wave attenuation rates were found on the exposed site, despite the presence of more flexible individual shoots. This study highlights that the efficiency of wave attenuation by tidal marsh vegetation ultimately depends on mutual interactions between waves and plasticity in morphological, biochemical, and biomechanical plant properties.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)799-815
Number of pages17
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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