1. Changes to the natural flow regime of a river caused by flow regulation may affect waterborne seed dispersal (hydrochory), and this may be an important mechanism by which regulation affects riverine plant communities. We assessed the effect of altered timing of seasonal flow peaks on hydrochory and considered the potential implications for plant recruitment.
2. We sampled hydrochory within five lowland rivers of temperate Australia, three of which are regulated by large dams. These dams are operated to store winter and spring rains and release water in summer and autumn for agriculture. At three sites on each river, hydrochory was sampled monthly for 12 months using passive drift nets. The contents of the drift samples were determined using the seedling-emergence method.
3. More than 33 000 seedlings from 142 taxa germinated from the samples. In general, more seeds and taxa were observed in the drift at higher flows. By altering the period of peak flows from winter–spring to summer–autumn, flow regulation similarly affected the period of peak seed dispersal. The effect of regulation on seed dispersal varied between taxa depending on their timing of seed release and whether or not they maintain a persistent soil seed bank.
4. Hydrochory in rivers is a product of flow regime and the life history of plants. By altering natural flow regimes and thus hydrochorous dispersal patterns, flow regulation is likely to affect adversely the recruitment of native plant species with dispersal phenologies adapted to natural flow regimes (such as many riparian trees and shrubs) and encourage the spread of non-native (exotic) species.
5. Changes to hydrochorous dispersal patterns are an important mechanism by which altered flow timing affects riverine plant communities. Natural seasonal flow peaks (in this case spring) are likely to be important for the recruitment of many native riparian woody taxa.