Mechanisms associated with decline of woody species in riparian ecosystems of the southwestern U.S.

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Throughout western North America, riparian ecosystem function has been transformed by anthropogenic influences on riverine environments. Modified flood frequency, duration, or intensity; depressed floodplain water tables; and increased alluvium salinity have contributed to change in riparian forest communities formerly dominated by Populus fremontii and Salix gooddingii. The invasion of the naturalized arborescent shrub, Tamarix ramosissima, potentially alters competitive hierarchies and disturbance regimes in these riparian ecosystems. We evaluated the structure and function of two southwestern riparian communities that differed in the degree of streamflow perturbation to which they had been subjected: the highly regulated lower Colorado River and the less tightly regulated Bill Williams River. Ordination analyses provided evidence that these riparian communities are structured along gradients relating to moisture, salinity, disturbance from fire, and community maturity, with Colorado River sites being more xeric and saline than those on the Bill Williams River. Foliar elemental analyses revealed high sodium concentrations in Tamarix (Na:K ratio = 1.87) and in the native shrub Tessaria sericea (Na:K = 1.56). Evaluation of tissue water relations parameters showed that Tamarix had lower osmotic potentials than sympatric woody taxa, helping to confirm that Tamarix is halophytic and probably capable of greater osmotic adjustment than native species. Carbon isotopic discrimination ( ) provided evidence for higher water use efficiency in Tamaris than in Populus, Salix, and Tessaria. Tamarix averaged over 1% less than that of the other riparian taxa. Experimental removal of Tamarix from stands where Salix was codominant resulted in growth augmentation, less negative water potentials, and higher leaf conductance in Salix, all providing evidence of interspecific competition. The persistence of Salix, but not Populus, on the Colorado River appears to be due to greater water— and salinity stress tolerance in Salix than in Populus. A preponderance of senescent Populus along the Colorado River is an indication that this formerly dominant species is effectively approaching local extinction in parts of this ecosystem.


Environmental Indicators and Impact Assessment | Plant Sciences | Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology | Weed Science