The Role of Abandoned Channels as Refugia for Sustaining Pioneer Riparian Forest Ecosystems

Abstract

In disturbance-prone ecosystems, organisms often persist in spatial refugia during stressful periods. A clear example is the colonization of abandoned river channels by pioneer riparian trees. Here, we examine the prominence of this establishment pathway for a foundation tree species (Fremont cottonwood, Populus fremontii) within the riparian corridor of a large river, the Sacramento River in central California. We quantified the total proportion of forest that initiated as a result of channel abandonment for a 160-km reach, analyzed concurrent patterns of tree establishment with floodplain accretion and sedimentation history, and developed a conceptual model of biogeomorphic evolution of abandoned channels. Historical air photo analysis indicated that stands associated with abandoned channels comprised more than 50% of the total extant cottonwood forest area. Tree-ring evidence showed that cottonwood stands commonly developed immediately following abandonment, and the recruitment window ranged from 4 to 40 years, but was less than 10 years at most sites. Rates of floodplain rise and fine sediment accumulation were high in young sites and decreased logarithmically over time. Together, these results suggest that abandoned channels are an important refuge for cottonwood recruitment, that the greatest opportunity for colonization occurs within a short period after the cutoff event, and that sedimentation processes influence the duration of the colonization window. On rivers where tree recruitment along the active channel is severely limited by hydrologic regulation and/or land management, abandoned channel refugia may play an even more important role in sustaining an ecologically functional riparian corridor. Preserving bank erosion, active meander corridors and forest regeneration zones created by cutoff events are therefore key conservation measures on shifting rivers.

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Acknowledgments

Funding was provided by the CALFED Bay-Delta Program (JCS, JJB, MKH, AKF), University of California Agricultural Experiment Station (MKH and JJB), UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Fellowship (MKH), and CNRS Programme International de Coopération Scientifique (HP, SD, JCS, MKH). We thank Ryan Luster and Greg Golet (The Nature Conservancy), Adam Henderson (California Department of Water Resources), Monika Michalková, Cheryl Bondi, and Dr. Matt Kondolf for early study plan review, logistical support, and geospatial data acquisition and processing. We appreciate Adrian Alber, Marie-Laure Trémélo, Vincent Gaertner, Kristell Michel, Jordan Wolfe, Zach Tane, and Kiyomi Morino for valiant field and lab assistance. Ideas and analyses in this paper benefited greatly from discussions with Elizabeth Harper, José Constantine, and Christian Braudrick.

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Correspondence to John C. Stella.

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JCS, MKH, JJB, HP, and SD designed the study; JCS, MKH, HP, and SD performed research; JCS, MKH, and HP analyzed data; JJB, HP, SD, and AKF contributed new methods and data; and JCS, MKH, JJB, and AKF wrote the paper.

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Stella, J.C., Hayden, M.K., Battles, J.J. et al. The Role of Abandoned Channels as Refugia for Sustaining Pioneer Riparian Forest Ecosystems. Ecosystems 14, 776–790 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-011-9446-6

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Key words

  • abandoned channel
  • cottonwood
  • Salicaceae
  • floodplain
  • recruitment refugia
  • riparian
  • Sacramento River
  • dendrochronology
  • oxbow
  • persistence strategy