Burrowing fauna mediate alternative stable states in the redox cycling of salt marsh sediments

Sebastiaan J. van de Velde, Silvia Hidalgo-Martinez, Ine Callebaut, Gilad Antler, Rebecca K. James, Martine Leermakers, Filip J.R. Meysman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


The East Anglian salt marsh system (UK) has recently generated intriguing data with respect to sediment biogeochemistry. Neighbouring ponds in these salt marshes show two distinct regimes of redox cycling: the sediments are either iron-rich and bioturbated, or they are sulphide-rich and unbioturbated. No conclusive explanation has yet been given for this remarkable spatial co-occurrence. Here, we quantify the geochemical cycling in both pond types, using pore-water analyses and solid-phase speciation. Our results demonstrate that differences in solid-phase carbon and iron inputs are likely small between pond types, and so these cannot act as the direct driver of the observed redox dichotomy. Instead, our results suggest that the presence of bioturbation plays a key role in the transition from sulphur-dominated to iron-dominated sediments. The presence of burrowing fauna in marine sediments stimulates the mineralisation of organic matter, increases the iron cycling and limits the build-up of free sulphide. Overall, we propose that the observed dichotomy in pond geochemistry is due to alternative stable states, which result from non-linear interactions in the sedimentary iron and sulphur cycles that are amplified by bioturbation. This way, small differences in solid phase input can result in very different regimes of redox cycling due to positive feedbacks. This non-linearity in the iron and sulphur cycling could be an inherent feature of marine sediments, and hence, alternative stable states could be present in other systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)31-49
Number of pages19
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - 1 May 2020


  • Alternative stable states
  • Bioturbation
  • Marine sediments
  • Redox cycling
  • Salt marshes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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