Date of Award

12-2015

Level of Access

Open-Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Ecology and Environmental Sciences

Advisor

Brian J. Olsen

Second Committee Member

Thomas P. Hodgman

Third Committee Member

Brian J. McGill

Additional Committee Members

Kate O’Brien

Steven S. Sader

Abstract

Given the current mass extinction crisis and continued fragmentation of resources worldwide, the outlook is dire for global biodiversity. Rising global temperature, sea levels, and storm frequency all create environmental conditions that can drive change in species abundance and distribution across a landscape. Those species reliant upon a single type of habitat and resource for survival, termed “specialists”, are particularly vulnerable to change due to their inability to utilize a variety of resources well. As a result, specialism is now considered one of the dominant factors determining extinction of species. In this dissertation I explore the effects of disturbance on habitat specialist birds in tidal marshes of the northeastern United States. This ecosystem is important due to the significant ecosystem services it provides to humans, and supports several specialist species including the saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). I examine this specialist bird community across scales of space, time, and ecological organization to A) evaluate the impacts of disturbance on tidal marsh communities and B) provide findings and management recommendations for long-term maintenance and conservation of coastal marsh ecosystems, specifically as they pertain to salt-marsh specialist birds. In Chapter 1 I introduce my study system and give background for the current conservation status of tidal marsh birds. In Chapter 2 I generate population trends in the five species particularly specialized to tidal marsh using a database of historical records, and explore potential drivers for population change through local and regional habitat disturbance. In Chapter 3 I expand upon patterns in Chapter 2 ad quantify life history strategy in marsh birds across a gradient of habitat specialization to explore how this metric explains species persistence in tidal marshes. In Chapter 4 I test several theoretical hypotheses from disturbance ecology empirically using traditional and novel community metrics. Finally, in Chapter 5 I respond to research needs identified in Chapter 4 to develop a method for quantification of high-marsh habitat using remote sensing methods. I hope the findings presented here contribute towards understanding of the mechanisms driving biodiversity patterns on our planet and help inform conservation priorities within the changing tidal marsh landscapes.

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