, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 141-153

A conceptual model of vegetation dynamics on gravel bars of a large Alpine river

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The concepts of large river systems have been advanced with limited empirical knowledge of natural systems. In particular, virually all large Alpine European rivers were ‘trained’ during the 19th century. Without first hand knowledge of natural systems we lack baseline data to assess human impacts and to address restoration and conservation strategies. An exception is the River Tagliamento which rises in the limestone Alps of northern Italy and flows for 172 km to the Adriatic Sea. Following a very high flood, we observed the first stages of succession within the river's active zone. This article presents a conceptual model of vegetation dynamics on gravel bars based upon those observations. Thousands of trees and other large woody debris (LWD) lay scattered across the active zone after the flood. The larger pieces of debris had a marked influence on the deposition of sediments and other debris, and were sites of colonization by pioneer plants. They represent the first stage in the development of vegetated islands that have the potential to increase in size during subsequent floods. Islands are also eroded, particularly by lateral channel erosion, and the materials may be reincorporated into new islands downstream. The island vegetation is dominated by five Salix species and Populus nigra. The dynamics of vegetated islands results from the interaction between the fluvial regime and the dominant woody species, the Salicaceae. These plants act as ‘autogenic ecosystem engineers’, because the plant structures themselves alter the environmental conditions through trapping sediment and organic debris. These processes may help to maintain an island-braided channel system that supports a high habitat diversity. Management of the river to regulate flow or to reduce the supply of LWD is likely to result in a loss of the habitat heterogeneity produced by island dynamics.