Research Summaries


Compiled by Alan Carpenter

Hogan, D. M. and M. R. Walbridge.
2009. Recent and cover history and nutrient retention in riparian wetlands. Environmental Management 43: 62-72.

Wetland ecosystems are profoundly affected by altered nutrient and sediment loads received from anthropogenic activity in their surrounding watersheds. Our objective was to compare a gradient of agricultural and urban land cover history during the period from 1949 to 1997, with plant and soil nutrient concentrations in, and sediment deposition to, riparian wetlands in a rapidly urbanizing landscape. We observed that recent agricultural land cover was associated with increases in Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) concentrations in a native wetland plant species. Conversely, recent urban land cover appeared to alter receiving wetland environmental conditions by increasing the relative availability of P versus N, as reflected in an invasive, but not a native, plant species. In addition, increases in surface soil Fe content suggests recent inputs of terrestrial sediments associated specifically with increasing urban land cover. The observed correlation between urban land cover and riparian wetland plant tissue and surface soil nutrient concentrations and sediment deposition, suggest that urbanization specifically enhances the suitability of riparian wetland habitats for the invasive species Japanese stiltgrass [Microstegium vimenium (Trinius) A. Camus].


Vincent, K. R., J. M. Friedman, and E. R. Griffin.
2009. Erosional consequence of saltcedar control. Environmental Management 43: 218-227.

Removal of nonnative riparian trees is accelerating to conserve water and improve habitat for native species. Widespread control of dominant species, however, can lead to unintended erosion. Helicopter herbicide application in 2003 along a 12-km reach of the Rio Puerco, New Mexico, eliminated the target invasive species saltcedar (Tamarix spp.), which dominated the floodplain, as well as the native species sandbar willow (Salix exigua Nuttall), which occurred as a fringe along the channel. Herbicide application initiated a natural experiment testing the importance of riparian vegetation for bank stability along this data-rich river. A flood three years later eroded about 680,000 m3 of sediment, increasing mean channel width of the sprayed reach by 84%. Erosion upstream and downstream from the sprayed reach during this flood was inconsequential. Sand eroded from channel banks was transported an average of 5 km downstream and deposited on the floodplain and channel bed. Although vegetation was killed across the floodplain in the sprayed reach, erosion was almost entirely confined to the channel banks. The absence of dense, flexible woody stems on the banks reduced drag on the flow, leading to high shear stress at the toe of the banks, fluvial erosion, bank undercutting, and mass failure. The potential for increased erosion must be included in consideration of phreatophyte control projects.


Sanderson, J. S., N. B. Kotliar, and D. A. Steingraber.
2008. Opposing environmental gradients govern vegetation zonation in an intermountain playa. Wetlands 28:1060-1070.

Vegetation zonation was investigated at an intermountain playa wetland (Mishak Lakes) in the San Luis Valley (SLV) of southern Colorado. Plant composition and abiotic conditions were quantified in six vegetation zones. Reciprocal transplants were performed to test the importance of abiotic factors in governing zonation. Abiotic conditions differed among several vegetation zones. Prolonged inundation led to anaerobic soils in the Eleocharis palustris and the submerged aquatics zones, on the low end of the site’s 1.25 m elevation gradient. On the high end of the gradient, soil salinity and sodicity (a measure of exchangeable sodium) were high in the Distichlis spicata zone (electrical conductivity, EC = 5.3 dS/m, sodium absorption ratio, SAR = 44.0) and extreme in the Sarcobatus vermiculatus zone (EC = 21 dS/m, SAR = 274). Transplanted species produced maximum biomass in the zone where they originated, not in any other higher or lower vegetation zone. The greatest overall transplant effect occurred for E. palustris, which experienced 77% decline in productivity when transplanted to other zones. This study provides evidence that physical factors are a major determinant of vegetation zone composition and distribution across the entire elevation gradient at Mishak Lakes. Patterns at Mishak Lakes arise from counter-directional stress gradients: a gradient from anaerobic to well-oxygenated from basin bottom to upland and a gradient from extremely high salinity to low salinity in the opposing direction. Because abiotic conditions dominate vegetation zonation, restoration of the altered hydrologic regime of this wetland to a natural hydrologic regime may be sufficient to re-establish many of the natural biodiversity functions provided by these wetlands.


Nel, J. L., B. Reyers, D. J. Roux, and R. M. Cowling.
2009. Expanding protected areas beyond their terrestrial comfort zone: Identifying spatial options for river conservation. Biological Conservation 142:1605-1616.

There has been very little consideration of freshwater ecosystems in identifying and designing protected areas. Recent studies suggest that protected areas hold enormous potential to conserve freshwater biodiversity if augmented with appropriate planning and management strategies. Recognizing this need, South Africa’s relevant government authority commissioned a spatial assessment to inform their national protected area expansion strategy. This study presents the freshwater component of the spatial assessment, aimed at identifying focus areas for expanding the national protected area system for the benefit of river biodiversity. Conservation objectives to guide the assessment aimed to improve representation of river biodiversity pattern and processes in both new and existing protected areas. Data to address these objectives were collated in a Geographic Information System (GIS) and a conservation planning algorithm was used as a means of integrating the multiple objectives in a spatially efficient manner. Representation of biodiversity pattern was based on achieving conservation targets for 222 river types and 47 freshwater fish endemic to South Africa. Options were also identified for representing coarse-scale biodiversity processes associated with free-flowing rivers and catchment-estuarine linkages. River reaches that, with only minor expansion of existing protected area boundaries, could be fully incorporated into the national protected area system were also identified. Based on this study, generic recommendations are made on how to locate, design and manage protected areas for river biodiversity: use appropriate planning units, incorporate both biodiversity pattern and process, improve planning and management of individual protected areas, incorporate a mixture of protection strategies, and embed planning into an ongoing research and implementation process.


Harner, M. J., C. L. Crenshaw, M. Abelho, M. Stursova, J. J. Follstad Shah, R. L. Sinsabaugh.
2009. Decomposition of leaf litter from a native tree and an actinorhizal invasive across riparian habitats. Ecological Applications 19:1135-1146.

Dynamics of nutrient exchange between floodplains and rivers have been altered by changes in flow management and proliferation of nonnative plants. We tested the hypothesis that the nonnative, actinorhizal tree, Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), alters dynamics of leaf litter decomposition compared to native cottonwood (Populus deltoides ssp. wislizeni) along the Rio Grande, a river with a modified flow regime, in central New Mexico (USA). Leaf litter was placed in the river channel and the surface and subsurface horizons of forest soil at seven riparian sites that differed in their hydrologic connection to the river. All sites had a cottonwood canopy with a Russian olive-dominated understory. Mass loss rates, nutrient content, fungal biomass, extracellular enzyme activities (EEA), and macroinvertebrate colonization were followed for three months in the river and one year in forests. Initial nitrogen (N) content of Russian olive litter (2.2%) was more than four times that of cottonwood (0.5%). Mass loss rates (k; in units of d-1) were greatest in the river (Russian olive, k = 0.0249; cottonwood, k = 0.0226), intermediate in subsurface soil (Russian olive, k = 0.0072; cottonwood, k = 0.0031), and slowest on the soil surface (Russian olive, k = 0.0034; cottonwood, k = 0.0012) in a ratio of about 10:2:1. Rates of mass loss in the river were indistinguishable between species and proportional to macroinvertebrate colonization. In the riparian forest, Russian olive decayed significantly faster than cottonwood in both soil horizons. Terrestrial decomposition rates were related positively to EEA, fungal biomass, and litter N, whereas differences among floodplain sites were related to hydrologic connectivity with the river. Because nutrient exchanges between riparian forests and the river have been constrained by flow management, Russian olive litter represents a significant annual input of N to riparian forests, which now retain a large portion of slowly decomposing cottonwood litter with a high potential for N immobilization. As a result, retention and mineralization of litter N within these forests is controlled by hydrologic connectivity to the river, which affects litter export and in situ decomposition.