Shallow ponds are heterogeneous habitats within a temperate salt marsh ecosystem
Integrating spatial heterogeneity into assessments of salt marsh biogeochemistry is becoming increasingly important because disturbances that reduce plant productivity and soil drainage may contribute to an expansion of shallow ponds. These permanently inundated and sometimes prominent landscape features can exist for decades, yet little is known about pond biogeochemistry or their role in marsh ecosystem functioning. We characterized three ponds in a temperate salt marsh (MA, USA) over alternating periods of tidal isolation and flushing, during summer and fall, by evaluating the composition of plant communities and organic matter pools and measuring surface water oxygen, temperature, and conductivity. The ponds were located in the high marsh and had similar depths, temperatures, and salinities. Despite this, they had different levels of suspended particulate, dissolved, and sediment organic matter and abundances of phytoplankton, macroalgae, and Ruppia maritima. Differences in plant communities were reflected in pond metabolism rates, which ranged from autotrophic to heterotrophic. Integrating ponds into landcover-based estimates of marsh metabolism resulted in slower rates of net production (−8.1 ± 0.3 to −15.7 ± 0.9%) and respiration (−2.9 ± 0.5 to −10.0 ± 0.4%), compared to rates based on emergent grasses alone. Seasonality had a greater effect on pond water chemistry, organic matter pools, and algal abundances than tidal connectivity. Alternating stretches of tidal isolation and flushing did not affect pond salinities or algal communities, suggesting that exchange between ponds and nearby creeks was limited. Overall, we found that ponds are heterogeneous habitats and future expansion could reduce landscape connectivity and the ability of marshes to capture and store carbon.