Different ways to success: plant community trajectories over time and a soil moisture gradient in restored wetlands.
Ecological restoration is one of the most promising strategies to combat historical wetland losses caused by land use changes. Restored areas are ideal sites to study plant succession and changes in ecosystem functions over time. However, little is known about the influence of restoration on plant succession along environmental stress gradients. Knowing the processes and mechanisms driving the succession over time in contrasting abiotic conditions might provide new insight into the ultimate success of an ecological restoration. Relying on long-term vegetation monitoring, we studied the community succession of 4 plant communities along a restored waterlogging gradient in North-East Italy (from high to low soil saturation level): (i) Cladium fens, (ii) low alkaline fens, (iii) Molina wet meadows and (iv) dry meadows. We monitored 23 permanent plots distributed along the gradient, spanning from 1 to 21 years since restoration, and 4 plots as target vegetation (natural habitats). We analysed the changes in plant communities in terms of functional traits, diversity and species composition. We found that exotic and annual species decreased in mature stages of restoration while leaf dry matter content increased over time. Nutrient indicator value and leaf area showed opposite trends at the extreme points of the gradient. Across the successional stages, species richness decreased in Cladium fens and increased in alkaline fens and meadows. Species composition moved toward target vegetation showing contrasting dynamics between different restored habitats. Synthesis and applications. During succession waterlogging stress acts as main abiotic filter, triggering contrasting trajectories of plant communities. This filter seems to be stronger at the extreme points of the gradient generating opposite but faster dynamics than at intermediate conditions. Time and waterlogging promoted a continuous selection of species consistent to target vegetation in terms of richness, functional traits and composition. The evidenced trajectories suggest the need to develop habitat-specific protocols concerning the selection of restoration site and subsequent management decisions, with particular regard to plant communities at intermediate ecological conditions.