Science

Wild Hogs Pose A Climate Threat To Georgia By Munching On Marsh Mussels

A recent study suggests that feral hogs in the southeastern United States are a threat to salt marshes due to the hogs’ dietary preferences.

Feral hogs – which are invasive – are notorious omnivores, and have apparently developed a taste for mussels that burrow in the mud of salt marshes. These mussels are partners in a symbiotic relationship with a marsh plant known as cordgrass. Cordgrass growth increases when the mussels are present, which can be a boon for the plant in the face of extreme drought.

However, using a combination of experiments, aerial drone surveys, and climate simulations, researchers determined that feral hogs demolish marshlands when foraging for mussels and decrease plant presence. In fact, the hogs target areas where mussels are especially dense, trampling cordgrass in their wake. Ultimately, without mussels, the trampled cordgrass recovers much more slowly after drought conditions pass.

“Usually, drought forces marsh grass to retreat into mussel-rich patches and, when drought conditions subside, those patches form the nuclei for rapid post-drought recovery,” said Marc Hensel, lead author of this study. “However, we saw from drone imagery that some marshes were simply not recovering, and that was because those marshes were invaded by feral hogs that specifically target those same mussel-rich areas.”

Thus, invasive feral hogs could increase the vulnerability of salt marshes to climate change, if they continue to have access to the mussels that cordgrass growth and recovery depends on. This instability could potentially allow sea level rise to overtake marshes impacted by hungry hogs, and then reduce the marshes’ ability to uptake critical greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.


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