, Volume 9, Issue 3, pp 344–356 | Cite as

Drainage Size, Stream Intermittency, and Ecosystem Function in a Sonoran Desert Landscape

  • Ryan A. SponsellerEmail author
  • Stuart G. Fisher


Understanding the interactions between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems remains an important research focus in ecology. In arid landscapes, catchments are drained by a channel continuum that represents a potentially important driver of ecological pattern and process in the surrounding terrestrial environment. To better understand the role of drainage networks in arid landscapes, we determined how stream size influences the structure and productivity of riparian vegetation, and the accumulation of organic matter (OM) in soils beneath plants in an upper Sonoran Desert basin. Canopy volume of velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), as well as overall plant cover, increased along lateral upland–riparian gradients, and among riparian zones adjacent to increasingly larger streams. Foliar δ13C signatures for P. velutina suggested that landscape patterns in vegetation structure reflect increases in water availability along this arid stream continuum. Leaf litter and annual grass biomass production both increased with canopy volume, and total aboveground litter production ranged from 137 g m−2 y−1 in upland habitat to 446 g m−2 y−1 in the riparian zone of the perennial stream. OM accumulation in soils beneath P. velutina increased with canopy volume across a broad range of drainage sizes; however, in the riparian zone of larger streams, flooding further modified patterns of OM storage. Drainage networks represent important determinants of vegetation structure and function in upper Sonoran Desert basins, and the extent to which streams act as sources of plant-available water and/or agents of fluvial disturbance has implications for material storage in arid soils.


Sonoran Desert intermittent streams primary production soil organic matter scale Prosopis velutina 



This work was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF DEB 0075650, to SGF), and the Environmental Protection Agency Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program (# 91613101, to RAS). Sam Norlin, Jim Heffernan, and John Schade provided assistance in the field and/or lab. Comments by David Lewis, Jim Heffernan, and two anonymous reviewers improved the quality of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

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