Plant species richness in ephemeral and perennial reaches of a dryland river

Juliet Stromberg, A. F. Hazelton, M. S. White

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


Ephemeral reaches are common along desert rivers but are less well studied than those with perennial stream flow. This study contrasted riparian plant species richness and composition (extant vegetation and soil seed bank) between stream reaches with different low-flow conditions (perennial vs. ephemeral flow) but similar flood patterns and similar watershed-derived species pools. Data were collected at Cienega Creek (Arizona, USA) over a 2 year period spanning drought conditions and wetter conditions. Consistent with expectations relating to water limitation effects on diversity, species richness in the riparian zone was lower at ephemeral-flow sites during a season with minimal precipitation and no overbank flooding; under these conditions, the more permanent water sources of the perennial-flow sites sustain the larger number of species. During seasons with greater precipitation and elevated stream flows, in contrast, species richness at ephemeral-flow sites increased to levels at or slightly above those of perennial-flow sites. For values pooled across two wet seasons of a calendar year, year-round richness was greater at the two ephemeral-flow sites (total of 92 vascular plant species) than at the two perennial-flow sites (68 species). This greater year-round richness was a combination of multiple factors: greater light, space, and bare ground, a diverse soil seed bank (with the seed banks equally species-rich among hydrologic types), and moderately abundant precipitation and flooding sufficient to stimulate establishment of opportunistic species (mainly annuals) during the bimodal wet seasons. These results indicate that long-term patterns of site water availability, by influencing woody plant cover, mediate the diversity response to episodic water pulses in dryland rivers. The results also have implications for riparian conservation efforts, which to date have focused primarily on perennial stream reaches: ephemeral reaches of spatially intermittent rivers harbor many riparian plant species, and warrant conservation efforts, as well.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)663-677
Number of pages15
JournalBiodiversity and Conservation
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2009


  • Dryland river
  • Ephemeral stream
  • Plant community
  • Riparian ecosystem
  • Soil seed bank
  • Xeroriparian

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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