Spatial dependency of vegetation-environment linkages in an anthropogenically influenced wetland ecosystem
Management and restoration of vegetation patterns in ecosystems depends on an understanding of allogenic environmental factors that organize species assemblages and autogenic processes linked to assemblages. However, our ability to make strong inferences about vegetation-environment linkages in field studies is often limited due to correlations among environmental variables, spatial autocorrelation, and scale dependency of observations. This is particularly true in large, heterogeneous ecosystems such as the Everglades. Here, an extensive canal-and-levee system has modified historical fire regimes and hydropatterns while contributing large inputs of surface-water phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N) and cations such as sodium (Na). Some of these anthropogenic influences have been implicated as factors leading to the shift of sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense Crantz) and slough communities to an assemblage of weedy species such as cattail (Typha domingensis Pers.). To untangle the independent effect of multiple variables, we used a spatially explicit, multivariate approach to identify linkages among spatial patterns, environmental factors, and vegetation composition along a 10-km gradient of anthropogenic influence in the Everglades, an area immediately downstream from canal inflow structures. Clusters of plots were stratified among three zones (Impacted, Transition, and Reference), a design that allowed us to contrast vegetation-environment linkages and spatial patterns at multiple scales and degrees of ecosystem alteration. Along the 10-km gradient, partial Mantel tests showed that nutrients (phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium) and hydropattern (frequency of dryness) were independently linked to patterns in fine-scale vegetation composition, but phosphorus was the only environmental variable linked to patterns of coarse-scale composition. Regardless of scale, the effect of distance from canal inflows accounted for variation in vegetation that could not be explained by other variables. A significant residual effect of spatial proximity among sampling locations also was detected and was highly suggestive of dispersal or other spatial determinants of vegetation pattern. However, this pure spatial effect was significantly stronger in the Transition and Impacted zones than in the Reference zone - fine-scale environmental variables explained all of the spatial structure in vegetation in the Reference zone. A further examination of spatial patterns in vegetation by using Mantel correlograms revealed significant heterogeneity at fine, local scales in the Reference zone, but this pattern progressively degraded toward homogeneity among closely neighboring locations in the Impacted zone. However, the fine-scale vegetation pattern in the Reference zone was hierarchically nested at a broader scale and yielded a similar coarse pattern across the landscape, whereas the coarse pattern in the Transition and Impacted zones was relatively heterogeneous and fragmented. Collectively, these results indicate that allogenic spatial and environmental factors related to the canal system have disrupted the coupling between pattern and process by altering fine-scale vegetation-environment linkages and spatial patterns characteristic of the natural Everglades ecosystem.
King, RS; Richardson, CJ; Urban, DL; Romanowicz, EA
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