We synthesized information on temporal and spatial patterns of salt marsh habitat use by nekton in order to infer the importance of five main types of marsh function: reproduction, foraging, refuge from predation, refuge from stressful environmental conditions and environmental enhancement of physiology. We then extended the concept that intertidal gradients regulate habitat use patterns of nekton to a more universal concept that applies to all salt marsh habitats. We contend that all marsh habitats are linked to each other and to adjacent estuarine habitats along a depth gradient that mediates gradients in abiotic and biotic conditions. Tidal, diel and seasonal shifts in the magnitude and direction of these gradients result in gradients in tidal, diel and seasonal variation in biotic and abiotic conditions within the salt marsh. Collectively these gradients form the 'marsh gradient'. We propose that patterns of marsh use and ecological function for nekton result primarily from physiological and behavioral responses to this marsh gradient. A comparison of habitat use patterns in the context of the marsh gradient is an important - and underutilized - method to study marsh function and essential fish habitat. We note that our limited insight into the function of the marsh habitat results from a significant lack of information on the occurrence and causes of tidal, diel and ontogenetic marsh use patterns by nekton; this is particularly relevant with respect to data on the variation in environmental conditions along marsh gradients over tidal, diel and seasonal cycles and on how environmental variation on these scales influences nekton behavior, growth and survival.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Aquatic Science
- Environmental gradients
- Habitat requirements
- Salt marsh function
- Spatial zonation