Impact of river management history on the community structure, species composition and nutrient status in the Rhine alluvial hardwood forest

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The present-day Rhine alluvial hardwood forest (Querco-Ulmetum minoris, Issler 24) in the upper Rhine valley (France/Germany) is comprised of three vegetation units, one still flooded by calm waters (F) and the two others unflooded, one for 30 years (UF30) (after the river canalisation) and the other for about 130 years (UF130) (after river straightening and embankment work in the middle nineteenth century). In the three stands, species composition, structure and diversity of vegetation and nutrient content of mature leaf, leaf litter and soil have been studied. Fungi (Macromycetae) were only studied in two stands (F and UF130). The intensity of nutrient recycling was exemplified by comparing the chemical composition of rainwater, flood, throughfall, mature leaf, leaf litter, soil and groundwater in two of these stands (F and UF30).

The elimination of floods has caused a change in floristic composition, tree density and plant diversity. Tree density was higher in the two unflooded stands and was related to a large increase in sapling (< 6 cm dbh) density more than to a change of stem (> 6 cm dbh) density. Sapling density increased 2 times and three times in the UF30 and the UF130 respectively, whereas the stem density increased only 12% in the first stand and decreased 29% in the second one. The saprophytic macromycete communities have been supplemented with mycorrhizal species. Leaf litter production was slightly greater in the flooded (4.44 T ha−1 yr−1) than in the two unflooded stands (≤ 3.72 T ha−1 yr−1). Foliar N level is twice as high in the flooded stands in spite of an opposite soil status. P level decreased in soil and leaves with the duration of isolation and was at the same level in the groundwater in two stands (F and UF30). K, Mg and Ca contents of green leaf and leaf litter were high due to the geochemistry of the Rhine substrate (calcareous gravels and pebbles) and similar in all the stands studied, even though there are large inputs of these three elements by floods. Moreover we showed that the groundwater chemistry reflected the variations of nutrient inputs and thus could be a good indicator of the functioning of an alluvial ecosystem and of its change as a result of human activities. The restoration of floods in hardwood forest contributes to the preservation of alluvial vegetational structure and composition, the stimulation of biological processes and a better plant mineral nutrition and water supply.

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