Plant-sediment Interactions and Biogeochemical Cycling for Seagrass Communities in Chesapeake and Florida Bays

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Nagel, Jessica
Kemp, William M
Seagrasses are prominent, productive components of shallow coastal ecosystems worldwide. The role of seagrasses in biogeochemical cycling varies widely across ecosystems, and this is due in large part to the complex interactions and feedbacks among processes controlling dynamics of carbon, oxygen, nutrients, and dissolved organic matter (DOM). This dissertation examines the importance of the keystone seagrass species, <em>Thalassia testudinum</em>, to biogeochemical cycling at the community and ecosystem levels in Florida Bay. The research presented here also describes the consequence of disturbances, such as shifts in species composition and seagrass dieback, on biogeochemical processes in both Florida and Chesapeake Bays. In Florida Bay, <em>T. testudinum</em> was shown to stimulate sediment microbial activities and benthic production of oxygen, inorganic nitrogen, and DOM relative to adjacent benthic communities without seagrass but containing benthic microalgae. Strong diel patterns in net fluxes of these solutes in both communities underscore the importance of photosynthesis. Ecosystem-level production (P) and respiration (R) rates were also enhanced in <em>T. testudinum</em> communities. Clear seasonal and regional variations in P and R were evident across Florida Bay, with lowest rates reported in the northern regions. Seagrass dieback had a negative effect on sediment nitrification rates and net ecosystem production (P-R) at one site in Florida Bay, and loss of seagrass habitat may result in significant changes to biogeochemical budgets within this system. In mesohaline Chesapeake Bay, the ephemeral submersed plant species, <em>Ruppia maritima</em> was also shown to stimulate organic production, nutrient cycling, and sediment biogeochemical processes compared to benthic communities without seagrass; however, the more persistent native species, <em>Potamogeton perfoliatus</em>, had an even greater impact on these processes. Collectively, the results of this research reveal the potential significance of seagrass to biogeochemical cycling in Chesapeake and Florida Bays and suggest that disturbances, such as seagrass dieback or shifts in species composition, may substantially alter biogeochemical budgets within these systems.