Year

2016

Degree Name

BEnviSc Hons

Department

School of Earth & Environmental Science

Advisor(s)

Ben Gooden

Abstract

Coastal saltmarshes are recognised globally as important ecological communities that are increasingly under threat. The use of off-road vehicles in saltmarsh environments has been identified as a very serious and rapidly escalating threat to these ecosystems. Despite this, vehicle disturbance within saltmarsh ecosystems has not been widely studied, particularly in the Australian context. Further understanding of the nature of this threat is required to provide knowledge for potential rehabilitation strategies.

This study aimed to assess the impacts of vehicles on saltmarsh, at two locations on the South Coast of NSW, Australia. I adopted a multi-disciplinary approach to assess the impacts of vehicles on a range of biotic and abiotic variables. Biotic variables included abundance and composition of both the standing vegetation and the soil seed bank. The soil seed bank was assessed via a seedling emergence study, whereby soil samples were placed in greenhouses under conditions favourable for germination, and counted and identified as they emerged. Abiotic variables assessed included physical soil properties, chemical soil properties, micro-topography and hydrology. Physical and chemical soil properties were examined using a combination of field and laboratory techniques. The spatial extent of vehicle damage was determined, as well as the impacts of vehicles on micro-topography and hydrology using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

This study demonstrated that vehicles adversely impact saltmarsh ecosystems in a number of ways. Vegetation cover was on average 90% lower within vehicle tracks and the average number of plant species was halved. Changes to vegetation species composition were associated with vehicle damage, with impacted areas more likely to comprise species characteristic of the lower saltmarsh zone. The soil seed bank was adversely affected by vehicle disturbance, with an 80% reduction in average seed density within the soil of tracks. As the soil seed bank plays a vital role in vegetation recovery post-disturbance, reduced seed densities within the soil of vehicle tracks were considered major barriers to natural regeneration of damaged areas.

Vehicle damage was also associated with changes to the local abiotic environment. Increased soil compaction was identified as a major impact of vehicle disturbance. Overall soil quality was found to be reduced in areas of disturbance, with lower levels of soil organic matter within vehicle damaged areas. Vehicle tracks were also associated with localised depressions in the marsh surface and thus, altered hydrological conditions. These factors were considered to have significant influence on ecological function of the saltmarsh and were identified as major factors limiting regeneration in vehicle damaged areas. Investigation of the impacts of vehicles on South Coast saltmarsh sites revealed that unassisted regeneration may not always be possible, and more active rehabilitation measures may be required in response to vehicle disturbance.

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