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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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Plant populations have long been noted to migrate faster than predicted based on their life history and seed dispersal characteristics (i.e., Reid's paradox of rapid plant migration). Although precise mechanisms to account for such phenomena are not fully known for all plant species, a combination of theoretical and empirically driven mechanisms often resolves this paradox. Here, we couple a series of direct and indirect field and laboratory exercises on one marine macrophyte, Zostera marina L. (eelgrass), to measured distances between new patches and established beds in order to elucidate the longdistance dispersal and colonization potential of this marine seagrass. Detached, floating reproductive shoots with mature seeds were found to remain positively buoyant for up to 2 wk and retain mature seeds for up to 3 wk before release under laboratory conditions. Analysis of the, detritus wrack along a remote shoreline found reproductive fragments with viable seeds up to 34 km from established, natural beds. Analysis of different regions of the Chesapeake Bay and coastal bays of the Delmarva Peninsula that once supported eelgrass populations, revealed natural patches at 13 sites ranging from 1 to 108 km from established populations. A combination of tidal currents and wind influences has the potential to move a passive particle at the surface (e.g., a floating reproductive fragment) up to 23 km in a 6-h tidal window suggesting that most unvegetated areas in this region that can support eelgrass are within the colonization potential envelope.

We suggest that, when combined with earlier work on seed dispersal ecology of this species, eelgrass has strong qualities for high colonization potential of new habitat. The finding of natural patches at such great distances from established beds when studied in the context of the dispersal mechanism (currents and wind) make the dispersal distances of this species one of the highest for angiosperms, comparable in scale to mangroves and coconuts. This new understanding of the dispersal dynamics of eelgrass is critical in the context of seagrass restoration in areas distant from established beds, maintenance of existing populations threatened by anthropogenic inputs of sediments arid nutrients, and examining metapopulation concepts in seagrass ecology.




Chesapeake Bay, USA; eelgrass; long-distance dispersal; marine macrophyte; seagrass ecology; spatial ecology; Zostera marina

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Copyright by the Ecological Society of America