Aquatic vegetation processes in a floodplain-river system and the influence of lateral dynamics and connectivity
PublisherUniversity of Stirling
MetadataShow full item record
In river ecology the description and understanding of near-natural ecosystem functionality is a difficult task to achieve as the majority of river floodplains have been intensively impacted by human activities. This work addresses ecological functionality of a relatively unimpacted large river system, focussing on the lateral dynamic and connectivity mechanisms driving aquatic vegetation processes. Macrophytes were found to be very patchily distributed at the riverscape scale, being mainly confined to low energy lateral habitats in the floodplain, such as backwaters. Backwaters provided favourable conditions for plants to colonise and recruit and contributed highly to species diversity and productivity at the floodplain scale. Differences between backwaters were attributed to the frequency of connectivity with the main channel during flood events. Nevertheless, the ecological mechanism driving diversity through flooding appears not to be related to flow disturbance. Biomass produced in backwaters was found to remain stable after potentially scouring floods. Therefore the hypothesis that flood disturbances promote species diversity through the removal and destruction of biomass and rejuvenate communities such that species coexistence is increased was rejected. Rather, it appears that diversity in backwaters increases along a temporal gradient as a response to the input of colonists and their accumulation overtime through successive flood inputs. Despite the apparently non-destructive effect of floods on macrophyte biomass, backwaters appear to have a significant role in exporting large amounts of plant propagules from the site of production. Backwaters represented a net source of propagules which highly enriched the main channel pool of potential colonists. However, whereas propagules could be dispersed for long distances in flood flows the probability for them to reach a suitable downstream habitat was extremely low. This work showed that dispersal at baseflow and entry to backwaters through the downstream end after short dispersal drift provided a greater chance of successful colonisation despite the individually much shorter distance moved. Backwaters were demonstrated to be rather isolated aquatic habitats, even though they experience hydrological connectivity, suggesting that primary colonisation of these sites is a limiting step. Instead, colonisation was shown to rely primarily on propagules generated internally by established plants. Whereas colonisation could occur via internal re-organisation of existing plant propagules, the backwater seed bank could also contribute to the macrophytes species established in backwaters. Such contribution was consistently low to medium along a gradient of disturbances and connectivity and showed independence from such river flow processes. Species richness was found to be higher in the established species than in the seed bank, suggesting that asexual reproduction is prioritised by aquatic vegetation in riverine backwaters. The occurrence or persistence of macrophyte species in backwaters depends upon rhizome and plant shoot regeneration. The lack of influence of connectivity revealed that plants may originate from both in situ and externally waterborne vegetative propagules derived from other upstream backwaters. This research demonstrated that the lateral dynamic and associated connectivity are major components of river floodplain ecology which generate a wide spectrum of habitats and have a controlling effect on vegetation processes. Therefore a naturally dynamic ecological state is required to support ecosystem functionality in large river floodplains and especially to maintain a high level of species diversity, productivity and colonisation of backwaters by macrophytes.