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The importance of water regimes operating at small spatial scales for the diversity and structure of wetland vegetation

Authors


Elisa J. Raulings, Australian Centre for Biodiversity, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University, Clayton, 3800 Vic., Australia. E-mail: elisa.raulings@sci.monash.edu.au

Summary

1. In most cases, the most important determinant of wetland vegetation is the water regime. Although water regime is usually described and managed at the scale of whole wetlands, the patterning of vegetation is likely to be determined by water regimes that are experienced at much finer spatial scales. In this study, we assess the significance of internal heterogeneity in water regimes and the role that this heterogeneity plays in vegetation patterning.

2. The effects of water regime on wetland plant species richness and vegetation structure were studied at Dowd Morass, a 1500 ha, Ramsar-listed wetland in south-eastern Australia that is topographically heterogeneous. Data on plant variables and water depth were collected along 45 (50 m) transects throughout the wetland and related to water regimes assigned individually for each transect. Wetland plants were assigned to plant functional groups (PFG) that describe the response of plants to the presence or absence of water at different life stages.

3. The classification of water depth data indicated four distinct water regimes in the wetland that were differentiated primarily by the duration of the dry period. Representatives of all PFGs co-existed over small spatial scales where topographical variation was present, and the richness and cover of understorey species declined as transects became more deeply and permanently flooded. Some PFGs (e.g. amphibious fluctuation tolerator-low growing and amphibious fluctuation responder-morphologically plastic) were eliminated by extended periods of flooding, which increased the cover but not richness of submerged plants. Species richness and foliage projective cover declined as water regimes shifted from shallow and frequently exposed conditions to regimes typified by deeper and longer inundation. Cover of the structurally dominant woody species was compromised by deeply flooded conditions but vegetative regeneration occurred despite high water levels.

4. Internal topographical variation generates mosaics of water regimes at fine spatial scales that allow plant species with different water regime requirements to co-exist over small distances. Deep water and an absence of dry periods result in decreased cover of plants and an overall loss of species richness in the understorey. Water regimes are described that promote regeneration and cover of structurally dominant taxa and increased species richness in the understorey. The study demonstrates a strong association between vegetation and the diverse water regimes that exist within a single wetland, a pattern that will be useful for modelling the effects of modified water regimes on wetland vegetation.

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