Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems

What happens when you add salt: predicting impacts of secondary salinisation on shallow aquatic ecosystems by using an alternative-states model

Jenny A. Davis, Megan McGuire, Stuart A. Halse, David Hamilton, Pierre Horwitz, Arthur J. McComb, Ray H. Froend, Michael Lyons and Lien Sim

Australian Journal of Botany 51(6) 715 - 724
Published: 01 December 2003


Alternative-states theory commonly applied, for aquatic systems, to shallow lakes that may be dominated alternately by macrophytes and phytoplankton, under clear-water and enriched conditions, respectively, has been used in this study as a basis to define different states that may occur with changes in wetland salinity. Many wetlands of the south-west of Western Australia are threatened by rapidly increasing levels of salinity as well as greater water depths and permanency of water regime. We identified contrasting aquatic vegetation states that were closely associated with different salinities. Salinisation results in the loss of freshwater species of submerged macrophytes and the dominance of a small number of more salt-tolerant species. With increasing salinity, these systems may undergo further change to microbial mat-dominated systems composed mostly of cyanobacteria and halophilic bacteria. The effect of other environmental influences in mediating switches of vegetation was also examined. Colour and turbidity may play important roles at low to intermediate salinities [concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS) <10 000 mg L–1]; however, coloured or turbid wetlands are rarely found at intermediate to high salinities (>10 000 mg L–1 TDS). The role of nutrients remains largely unquantified in saline systems. We propose that alternative-states theory provides the basis of a conceptual framework for predicting impacts on wetlands affected by secondary salinisation. The ability to recognise and predict a change in state with changes in salinity adds a further tool to decision-making processes. A change in state represents a fundamental change in ecosystem function and may be difficult to reverse. This information is also important for the development of restoration strategies. Further work is required to better understand the influence of temporal variation in salinity on vegetation states and probable hysteresis effects.

© CSIRO 2003

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