Connecting variation in vegetation and stream flow: the role of geomorphic context in vegetation response to large floods along boreal rivers.

Published online
07 Feb 2007
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Renöfält, B. M. & Merritt, D. M. & Nilsson, C.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
Nordic Countries & Sweden


Flooding governs riparian plant diversity along boreal rivers but the ecological role of extreme floods is only partly understood. We studied the dynamics of riparian plant composition and richness in the free-flowing Vindel River in northern Sweden, and the importance of reach type in sustaining high species richness. We conducted three surveys of riparian plant species richness over a period of two decades. The first and last of these surveys were conducted 1-3 years after significant flooding and the second was carried out after a period of more moderate flooding. Our results suggest that extreme floods reduce riparian plant species richness in tranquil (slow-flowing) reaches but that a subsequent period of less extreme flood events facilitates recovery. Tranquil river reaches were also more prone to invasion by ruderal species following major floods. Species richness in turbulent reaches (rapids and runs) remained constant during all surveys. One possible explanation for this pattern is that tranquil reaches become more anoxic during floods because they have more fine-grade soils with lower hydraulic conductivity than turbulent reaches. Anoxic conditions may cause stress and plant death, opening up space for colonization. Turbulent reaches maintain a better oxygenation in the root zone of plants through high groundwater turnover, reducing negative effects of prolonged floods. The fact that turbulent reaches preserved species richness regardless of flood magnitude suggests that they are important for the resistance of riparian ecosystems to prolonged inundation. In contrast, tranquil reaches, with a higher water-holding capacity, might instead maintain their species richness during drought periods. Synthesis and applications. Our findings highlight the importance of spatial and temporal variation in riverine plant species richness and composition. To conserve these habitats at a landscape scale, a full range of reach types is necessary to allow for recovery in reaches where species richness has declined. To maintain healthy riparian zones, river managers should focus restoration efforts on interactions between hydrology, geomorphology and biota.

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