Patterns of vegetation along the Omo River in southwest Ethiopia*

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Abstract

This study investigates the riverine vegetation along the perennial Omo River, which flows from the Ethiopian highlands to its terminus, in the southwestern lowlands, at Lake Turkana (formerly Lake Rudolf). Broadly defined to include the levee backslopes and adjacent mudflats (or ancient floodplains), the riverine zone in the lower Omo basin supports a relatively luxuriant vegetation compared with the dry grasslands in the surrounding plains environments. Habitat conditions along the lower Omo have changed significantly during the past century, primarily due to a period of reduced rainfall and river flow, a drop in lake level (L. Turkana) at the river's terminus and increased exposure of natural levees near the Omo's terminus. The floristic and physiognomic character of riverine vegetation were studied at selected sites, ranging from the relatively straight channel section in the modern delta to a strongly meandering (upstream) section of the river. A combination of open canopy woodland, shrub thicket and grassland (with scattered tree emergents) prevailed on the more recently exposed levees, in and near the modern delta; closed canopy woodland and forest predominated on fore levees in the meandering segment. Floristic diversity was relatively low at all study sites. Ficus sycomorus, Tapura fischeri, Melanodiscus oblongus, Celtis integrifolia and Trichilia roka were most significant in upstream forest sites, whereas Cordia sinensis, Acacia mellifera, Ziziphus mauritiana and Ficus sycomorus were more common in communities nearer the lake. Older forests generally contained greater diversity of more woody species, greater tree height and truck diameter than downstream levee vegetation, but they did not exhibit clear stratification. Species patchiness was broadly characteristic of the riverine zone, particularly the mudflats (ancient floodplains) extending away from the fore levees. Fires are frequently set by local inhabitants throughout the grasslands of the lower Omo Basin; within the riverine zone, they are particularly common in the mudflats but have only limited impact on woodland and forest vegetation. It is suggested that fire is a highly significant factor in the establishment of sharp boundaries between the closed canopy woodland/forest along the river and the more xerophytic vegetation of the mudflats.

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