Top-down vs. bottom-up control on vegetation composition in a tidal marsh depends on scale

Kelly Elschot, Anke Vermeulen, Wouter Vandenbruwaene, Jan P. Bakker*, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Julia Stahl, Henk Castelijns, Stijn Temmerman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


The relative impact of top-down control by herbivores and bottom-up control by environmental conditions on vegetation is a subject of debate in ecology. In this study, we hypothesize that top-down control by goose foraging and bottom-up control by sediment accretion on vegetation composition within an ecosystem can co-occur but operate at different spatial and temporal scales. We used a highly dynamic marsh system with a large population of the Greylag goose (Anser anser) to investigate the potential importance of spatial and temporal scales on these processes. At the local scale, Greylag geese grub for below-ground storage organs of the vegetation, thereby creating bare patches of a few square metres within the marsh vegetation. In our study, such activities by Greylag geese allowed them to exert topdown control by setting back vegetation succession. However, we found that the patches reverted back to the initial vegetation type within 12 years. At large spatial (i.e. several square kilometres) and temporal scales (i.e. decades), high rates of sediment accretion surpassing the rate of local sea-level rise were found to drive long-term vegetation succession and increased cover of several climax vegetation types. In summary, we conclude that the vegetation composition within this tidal marsh was primarily controlled by the bottom-up factor of sediment accretion, which operates at large spatial as well as temporal scales. Topdown control exerted by herbivores was found to be a secondary process and operated at much smaller spatial and temporal scales.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0169960
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2017


Dive into the research topics of 'Top-down vs. bottom-up control on vegetation composition in a tidal marsh depends on scale'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this