Salinity

For terrestrial plants, the concentration of salts in the soil water offers osmotic resistance to water uptake. The most extreme saline conditions occur in arid zones where the predominant movement of soil water is towards the surface and cystalline salt accumulates. This occurs especially when crops have been grown in arid regions under irrigation; salt pans then develop and the land is lost to agriculture. The main effect of salinity is to create the same kind of osmoregulatory problems as drought and freezing and the problems are countered in much the same ways. For example, many of the higher plants that live in saline environments (halophytes) accumulate electrolytes in their vacuoles, but maintain a low concentration in the cytoplasm and organelles (Robinson et al., 1983). Such plants maintain high osmotic pressures and so remain turgid, and are protected from the damaging action of the accumulated electrolytes by polyols and membrane protectants.

Freshwater environments present a set of specialized environmental conditions because water tends to move into organisms from the environment and this needs to be resisted. In marine habitats, the majority of organisms are isotonic to their environment so that there is no net flow of water, but there are many that are hypotonic so that water flows out from the organism to the environment, putting them in a similar position to terrestrial organisms. Thus, for many aquatic organisms the regulation of body fluid concentration is a vital and sometimes an energetically expensive process. The salinity of an aquatic environment can have an important influence on distribution and abundance, especially in places like estuaries where there is a particularly sharp gradient between truly marine and freshwater habitats.

The freshwater shrimps Palaemonetes pugio and P. vulgaris, for example, co-occur in estuaries on the eastern coat of the USA at a wide range of salinities, but the former seems to be more tolerant of lower salinities than the latter, occupying some habitats from which the latter is absent. Figure 2.18 shows the mechanism likely to be underlying this (Rowe, 2002). Over the low salinity range (though not at the effectively lethal lowest salinity) metabolic expenditure was significantly lower in P. pugio. P. vulgaris requires far more energy simply to maintain itself, putting it at a severe disadvantage in competition with P. pugio even when it is able to sustain such expenditure.

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