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A Tripartite Interaction Between Spartina alterniflora, Fusarium palustre, and the Purple Marsh Crab (Sesarma reticulatum) Contributes to Sudden Vegetation Dieback of Salt Marshes in New England

October 2014 , Volume 104 , Number  10
Pages  1,070 - 1,077

Wade H. Elmer

The Department of Plant Pathology and Ecology, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, P.O. Box 1106, New Haven 06504

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Accepted for publication 17 March 2014.

Tripartite interactions are common and occur when one agent (an arthropod or pathogen) changes the host plant in a manner that alters the attack of the challenging agent. We examined herbivory from the purple marsh crab (Sesarma reticulatum) on Spartina alterniflora following exposure to drought or inoculation with Fusarium palustre in mecocosms in the greenhouse and in crab-infested creek banks along intertidal salt marshes. Initially, drought stress on S. alterniflora and disease from F. palustre were examined in the greenhouse. Then, a second challenger, the purple marsh crab, was introduced to determine how drought and disease from F. palustre affected the attraction and consumption of S. alterniflora. Plant height and shoot and root weights were reduced in plants subjected to severe drought treatment when compared with normally irrigated plants. When the drought treatment was combined with inoculation with F. palustre, plants were significantly more stunted and symptomatic, had less fresh weight, more diseased roots, and a greater number of Fusarium colonies growing from the roots (P < 0.001) than noninoculated plants. The effects were additive, and statistical interactions were not detected between drought and inoculation. Estimates of herbivory (number of grass blades cut or biomass consumption) by the purple marsh crab were significantly greater on drought-stressed, diseased plants than on healthy plants irrigated normally. Drought increased attraction to the purple marsh crab more than inoculation with F. palustre. However, when only mild drought conditions were imposed, plant consumption was greater on inoculated plants. Healthy, nonstressed transplants set into plots in crabinfested intertidal creek banks were grazed less each year than inoculated plants or plants that were exposed to drought. Several hypotheses relating to nutrition, chemotaxis, and visual attraction are presented to explain how stress from drought or disease might favor herbivory.

© 2014 The American Phytopathological Society