Plant traits of propagule banks and standing vegetation reveal flooding alleviates impacts of agriculture on wetland restoration.

Published online
10 Jan 2018
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Dawson, S. K. & Warton, D. I. & Kingsford, R. T. & Berney, P. & Keith, D. A. & Catford, J. A.
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Restoration of degraded plant communities requires understanding of community assembly processes. Human land use can influence plant community assembly by altering environmental conditions and species' dispersal patterns. Flooding, including from environmental flows, may counteract land use effects on wetland vegetation. We examined the influence of land use history and flood frequency on the functional composition of wetland plant communities along a regulated river. We applied fourth corner modelling to determine species' trait-based responses to flooding and land use by combining data on (i) the occupancy and abundance of species in propagule banks and standing vegetation, (ii) species traits, and (iii) environmental conditions of 22 standing vegetation and 108 soil propagule bank study sites. We used analysis of deviance to test how well each dataset characterised trait-environment interactions, and generalised linear models to identify traits related to species' responses. The occupancy and abundance of native species in the propagule bank and standing vegetation increased with flood frequency and decreased with duration of agricultural land use. Species in standing vegetation with water-borne propagule dispersal (hydrochory) showed similar trends. In contrast, species with higher specific leaf area were associated with longer land use duration. Identifying trait-based differences in the propagule bank and standing vegetation can help disentangle effects of dispersal and environmental filters. The occupancy and abundance of hydrochorous species in standing vegetation were negatively related to land use duration, but hydrochorous species were positively related to land use duration based on their abundance in the propagule bank. This suggests that land use does not limit plant dispersal, but acts as an in situ abiotic filter, limiting species present in standing vegetation. Synthesis and applications. Land use duration and flood frequency have opposite effects on plant community traits in floodplain wetlands of the Macquarie Marshes, Australia. Legacies of agriculture can impede restoration of plant communities. Environmental flows that increase flooding may alleviate these impacts, especially in areas that have been used for agriculture for over 20 years, by providing dispersal and environmental filters that favour native wetland species. More flooding will likely be required to restore floodplains with longer histories of agricultural land use compared to floodplains less impacted by agriculture.

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