, Volume 565, Issue 1, pp 59-69

Seasonal Dependent Effects of Flooding on Plant Species Survival and Zonation: a Comparative Study of 10 Terrestrial Grassland Species

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Past research has provided compelling evidence that variation in flooding duration is the predominant factor underlying plant species distribution along elevation gradients in river floodplains. The role of seasonal variation in flooding, however, is far from clear. We addressed this seasonal effect for 10 grassland species by testing the hypothesis that all species can survive longer when flooded in winter than when flooded in summer. We carried out an inundation experiment under simulated conditions of summer and winter flooding in the greenhouse. The results showed that all species survived longer under winter floods than under summer floods. However, responses upon flooding were species-specific. All summer flood-tolerant species had high tolerance for winter floods as well, but summer flood sensitive species survived either a little longer, or dramatically longer when flooded under simulated winter conditions. Next, we examined whether winter or summer survival best predicted the lower distribution limits of the species as measured in a natural flooding gradient after an extremely long winter flood. We found a strong significant relationship between the lower distribution limits of species in the field and their tolerance to summer floods, although we measured the lower limits 14 years after the latest major summer flood. In contrast, no such significant relationship existed with species tolerance to winter floods. Some relatively intolerant species occurred at much higher floodplain elevations as was expected from their tolerance to winter inundation in the experiments. This suggests that zonation patterns as created by occasional summer floods may be maintained for a long time, probably due to the limited ability of species to re-colonise lower positions in the floodplain.