Georgia Coastal Ecosystems LTER

Example of salt marsh die-off in coastal Georgia: Aerial photograph of Sapelo Island showing a common dieback pattern

Key Research Findings:

GCE scientists are studying a novel group of microbes that appear to convert nitrogen from ammonium to nitrate. Very little is known about these organisms, but their potential importance has implications for both understanding nitrogen cycling and controlling nitrogen pollution.
GCE scientists discovered that herbivores such as grasshoppers are more abundant and do more damage to plants in salt marshes at low versus high latitudes. This finding helps explain geographic variation in the palatability of coastal plants and in herbivore body size.
The density of marine organisms varies tremendously among and within habitats, leading to very different communities. GCE scientists combined ecological approaches with modern genetic analyses to reveal how abundance and genetic diversity of larvae vary from inland to offshore, with important implications for populations of snails, barnacles, and other organisms.


The Georgia Coastal Ecosystems (GCE) LTER site, located on the central Georgia coast, was established in 2000. The study domain encompasses three adjacent sounds (Altamaha, Doboy, Sapelo) and includes upland (mainland, barrier islands, marsh hammocks), intertidal (fresh, brackish and salt marsh) and submerged (river, estuary, continental shelf) habitats.

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University of Georgia Marine Institute studies of the Sapelo Island marshes began in 1954 and have resulted in over 900 publications. These publications, Georgia Rivers LMER data from 1995-2000, long-term Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve monitoring records, and aerial photographs dating back to 1954 provide a perspective on long-term changes in the system and will help in interpreting data collected over the course of the GCE-LTER project.

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Research Topics:

The objectives of GCE research are 1) to document long-term patterns of environmental forcing to the coastal zone, 2) to link environmental forcing to observed spatial and temporal patterns of biogeochemical processes, primary production, community dynamics, decomposition and disturbance, 3) to investigate the underlying mechanisms by which environmental gradients along the longitudinal (freshwater-saltwater) and 4) lateral (upland-subtidal) axes of estuaries drive ecosystem change, and 5) to explore the relative importance of larval transport and the conditions of the adult environment in determining community and genetic structure across both the longitudinal and vertical gradients of the estuary.

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