Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science



First Advisor

Julie Zinnert

Second Advisor

Donald Young


Stability of coastal systems are threatened by oceanic and atmospheric drivers of climate change. Sea-level rise compounded with increased frequency and intensity of storms emphasizes need for protection of inner island systems by dune formations. Dune building processes are affected by interactions between growth of ecosystem engineering dune grasses and environmental factors associated with disturbance such as sand burial and salt spray. Climate change may also cause latitudinal expansion of some species, resulting in emergence of competitive interactions that were previously absent. Topographic structure of coastlines, traditionally influenced by sand burial, could change as a result of competition emergence. My goal was to determine if species functional trait responses to common abiotic factors are altered by novel and current biotic interactions. I performed a multi-factorial greenhouse experiment by planting three common dune grasses (Ammophila breviligulata, Uniola paniculata, and Spartina patens) in different biotic combinations, using sand burial and salt spray as abiotic stressors. I hypothesized that biotic interactions will cause these dune grasses to shift functional trait responses to abiotic factors that are associated with dune building. I found that plants consistently decreased in biomass when buried. I also found that competition between A. breviligulata and U. paniculata negatively affected dune building function traits of A. breviligulata. This indicates that competition with U. paniculata could alter dune structure. In comparison A. breviligulata had a positive interaction with S. patens, which increased functional trait responses to abiotic stress. Last, we found that competitive intransitivity could occur between these species. My results can be used to make predictions on cross-scale consequences of novel competitive events. This experiment also provides evidence that consideration of local biotic interactions is important in understanding connections between plant level dynamics and large-scale landscape patterns in high stress environment.


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