Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Science


Plant Biology

First Advisor

Battaglia, Loretta


Research in salt marshes dominated by the grass Sporobolus alterniflorus indicates that plant characteristics affect fiddler crab burrowing and in turn, crab activity can enhance primary productivity by increasing soil oxygen and nutrient cycling. Crab-plant interactions are less understood in microtidal Gulf Coast marshes compared to Atlantic Coast tidal marshes. It is unknown how structure of the dominant Gulf Coast vegetation zones (salt marsh, brackish marsh, fresh marsh and salt pannes) affects density of crab burrows and how burrows may influence primary productivity. I hypothesized that fiddler crabs would be most abundant in marsh zones with intermediate substrate hardness and vegetation density (Goldilocks Hypothesis). A seasonal habitat preference study was conducted during 2016-2017 in tidal marshes at Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in coastal Mississippi using burrow density as a proxy for crab abundance. Plant above- and below-ground biomass, burrow proximity to vegetation, and soil hardness were also surveyed as potential drivers of fiddler crab populations. The results indicated that fiddler crabs burrow in all four zones, but to varying degrees, and that burrow density was highest during autumn. The fresh marsh had the highest average density of burrows, as well as vegetation and soil parameters most representative of intermediate habitat, thereby supporting the “Goldilocks Hypothesis”. The brackish marsh also proved to be important fiddler crab habitat. Preferential fiddler crab usage of habitat upslope of salt marsh, e.g., fresh and brackish marsh, in Gulf Coast sites suggests that they may avoid immediate impacts of rising sea levels and possibly even migrate to higher ground if needed.




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