Growth stress response to sea level rise in species with contrasting functional traits: A case study in tidal freshwater forested wetlands

Lu Zhai, Ken W. Krauss, Xin Liu, Jamie A. Duberstein, William H. Conner, Donald L. DeAngelis, Leonel d.S.L. Sternberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


With rising sea levels, mortality of glycophytes can be caused by water and nutrient stress under increasing salinity. However, the relative effects of these two stressors may vary by species-specific functional traits. For example, deciduous species, with leaves typically emerging during low salinity periods of the year, may suffer less from water stress than evergreen species. We sampled two woody species with contrasting functional traits: the evergreen and N2-fixing waxmyrtle (Morella cerifera), and the deciduous and non-N2 fixing baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) along a coastal river (South Carolina, USA) showing an increasing pattern of plant mortality along a salinity gradient. We first analyzed oxygen and hydrogen isotope ratios of plant stem water and river water to determine changes in plant source water at different sites. Then we analyzed foliar carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) along with nitrogen and phosphorous content (%N and %P) as proxies for the water and nutrient stress. Results showed that: (1) the two species had different water sources at the higher salinity sites; (2) foliar δ15N values of baldcypress decreased with higher salinity while retaining a constant δ13C value, and both of these isotope values were positively related with foliar %P, suggesting greater nutrient stress but minor water stress under high salinity; and (3) foliar δ13C values of waxmyrtle increased with higher salinity while retaining a constant foliar δ15N value, and neither of the values was significantly related to foliar nutrients, suggesting greater water stress but minor nutrient stress under high salinity. The different responses of the two species to high salinity may be related to their differences in leaf phenology and N2-fixation. Our results suggest that nutrient stress, particularly of P, can contribute to stress and eventual high mortality of baldcypress exposed to salt water intrusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)378-386
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental and Experimental Botany
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • N-fixation
  • Nutrient stress
  • Phenology
  • Plant functional trait
  • Salinity
  • Sea level rise
  • Stable isotope
  • Taxodium distichum
  • Water stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Plant Science


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