Geomorphic predictors of riparian vegetation in small mountain watersheds

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Hydrogeomorphic processes operating at watershed, process zone and site scales influence the distribution of riparian vegetation. However, most studies examining the relationships between hydrogeomorphic processes and riparian vegetation are conducted at site scales. We quantified the relative importance of watershed, process zone and site geomorphic characteristics for predicting riparian plant community types and plant species abundances in four small mountain watersheds in central Nevada, USA.


We mapped riparian vegetation types and identified process zones (based on dominant geomorphic process and valley fill material) within the watersheds. We sampled sites in each combination of vegetation type and process zone (n = 184 sites) and collected data on watershed scale factors, valley and stream geomorphic characteristics and on plant cover of each geomorphic surface. Plant community types were defined by cluster and indicator species analyses of plant cover data, and related to geomorphic variables using ordination analysis (nonmetric multidimensional scaling). Linear mixed effects models were used to predict abundances of indicator species.

Important Findings

Variables describing position in the watershed (elevation, contributing area) that are related to gradients of temperature, moisture and stream discharge were of primary importance in predicting plant community types. Variables describing local geomorphic setting (valley width, stream gradient, channel sediments, geomorphic surface height) were of secondary importance, but accurately described the geomorphic setting of indicator species. The process zone classification did not include position in the watershed or channel characteristics and only predicted plant community types with unique geomorphic settings. In small mountain watersheds, predicting riparian vegetation distribution requires explicit consideration of scale and geomorphic context within and among watersheds in addition to site variables.

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