, Volume 539, Issue 1, pp 205-224

Historical changes in herbaceous wetland distribution induced by hydrological conditions in Lake Saint-Pierre (St. Lawrence River, Quebec, Canada)

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Abstract

Historical changes (1961–2002) in the distribution of herbaceous wetland plant associations were inferred from the hydrological regime of Lake Saint-Pierre, a 312 km2 broadening of the St. Lawrence River (Quebec, Canada), to assess the cumulative effects of human interventions and climatic variability. Relative abundance index (height × percent cover) of wetland plants in 630 field quadrats sampled at 13 sites (1999–2002) were used to derive a model predicting the occurrence of nine herbaceous plant classes with a 71% (24–84%) accuracy. Wetland types included seasonally dry (meadows), mudflats and wet (low marshes and submerged) assemblages. Over the 1961–2002 period, the total surface area of Lake Saint-Pierre herbaceous wetlands ranged between 11 (in 1972) and 128 (in 2001) km2 and was negatively correlated (Spearman r = −0.86, p < 0.0001) to average water level during the current growing season. Within-season variability and level conditions over the previous season defined 5 marsh assemblages characterized by different species composition, relative abundance and diversity. Significant hydrological variables included quadrat elevation, water depth, number of days flooded and depth variability experienced over the current and/or previous growth seasons. The hydrological model suggests that for a given level, wetland plant assemblages differed markedly whether the multi-year sequence of water levels was rising or falling. Lake Saint-Pierre alternated between three broad-scale wetland configurations, dominated by meadows and open marsh with floating-leaved vegetation (in the 1960s), scattered tall Scirpus marshes (in the 1970s and early 1980s) and closed marsh with aggressive emergents (since 1996). The strong response of Lake Saint-Pierre wetlands to hydrological conditions in the current and previous growth seasons underlines their vulnerability to future water level variations resulting from regulation and climate variability.