Windows of opportunity for germination of riparian species after restoring water level fluctuations: a field experiment with controlled seed banks.
Restoration activities aiming at increasing vegetation diversity often try to stimulate both dispersal and germination. In wetlands, dispersal and germination are coupled as water and water level fluctuations (WLF) simultaneously influence seed transport and germination conditions (soil moisture). Water regime shifts have been shown to affect vegetation composition. However, the interactions between WLF, dispersal and subsequent germination as drivers of such changes are still poorly understood, especially within the complexity of a field situation. We tested the effect of soil moisture on ten riparian species in the greenhouse and sowed these species on 135 field locations in nine wetlands with recently restored WLF. We used quantile regressions to test the effects of WLF on the window of opportunity for germination from sown seeds and other seeds naturally dispersed to our plots, as well as on community diversity. Soil moisture significantly affected germination both in the greenhouse and in the field. In the complexity of a field situation, a flooding depth just below the soil level, an intermediate flooding duration and a high flooding frequency provided the best opportunities for maximal germination. This was because these conditions enhanced germination from the seed bank as well as increasing germination from dispersed seeds. Seedling diversity showed identical patterns. Other known (i.e., light conditions) and unknown factors played a role as we found low and variable germination, even under optimal conditions. We found evidence that WLF can affect vegetation zonation as flooded seedling communities contained more species with high moisture affinity. Synthesis and applications. Water level fluctuations provide clear windows of opportunity for germination both from the seed bank and from dispersed seeds. Water regime changes are therefore likely to strongly affect recruitment opportunities and subsequent community assembly in riparian ecosystems, for instance through climate change or management. Water level fluctuations can be used as management tool to stimulate plant recruitment and seedling diversity in riparian wetlands.