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Lehrstuhl für Biogeografie

Prof. Dr. Carl Beierkuhnlein

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Vegetation ecology of springs: ecological, spatial and temporal patterns

Volker Audorff (01/2009)

Betreuer: Carl Beierkuhnlein

Acidification is a phenomenon, which affected the forested catchments of the northern
hemisphere severely over recent decades. Acidic depositions depleted the buffering
capacities of soil and groundwater, what lead to an impairment of forests, headwaters, and
lakes. Even though the depositions were reduced considerably since the early 1990s, the
recovery of catchments was found to occur time‐delayed. The grade of recovery was found to
vary significantly between regions.

Biomonitoring is an appropriate tool to detect spatial and temporal patterns of ecosystem
alterations, such as acidification and recovery. However, to know the interrelationships
between organisms and their environment is an indispensable precondition for the
identification of indicator species. The complexity of ecosystems and ecological processes
hampers this quest oftentimes. Springs provide a natural setting that minimises such
constraints. Compared to other habitat types, external factors are less relevant, which makes
it easier to relate changes in species abundances to changes in their environment. Studying
this species‐environment relationship, here the response of plant species to the acidification
of the spring waters was of particular interest.

In a survey of five regions in Central Europe ‐ taking spatial, hydrophysical as well as
hydrochemical parameters of the springs into account ‐ it was clearly shown that the species
composition of springs is essentially determined by the spring water chemistry, and more
precisely by the gradient of acidity and nutrient availability. This connection was reflected by
spatial patterns within and between the regions. These patterns provide useful ecological
information about spring water quality and in return about the acidity status of their forested

Including catchment traits ‐ like bedrock, climatic parameters, and forest vegetation ‐ in the
analyses, these emerged to be relevant for the species composition of springs, but less than
the spring water chemistry. A path analysis showed that the catchments affect the vegetation
of springs not directly, but indirectly via the determination of spring water quality. Hence, the
catchments are a part of the functional chain, which is driven by the atmospheric depositions.
The pH‐value was found to represent the gradient of acidity and nutrient availability best. It
can serve as a proxy measure that can be related to species occurrence and to species
dynamics respectively, aiming to identify indicator species for assessing the status and
alterations of spring water quality.

With the aim to delineate niche optima and amplitudes, which in return can serve as indicator
values, the realised niches of spring‐inhabiting species were modelled with respect to pH. The niche attributes were found to be a matter of sampling scale. Larger plot sizes (grain)
weakened the species‐environment relationship, what consequently resulted in broader
niche amplitudes. In contrast, the grain did not influence the species’ pH optima.

Monitoring approaches that target to assess processes in time, such as acidification and
recovery, are dependent on the response time of indicator species to changes in their
environment. Investigating an interval of four consecutive years, inter‐annual variability of
the species composition could not be attributed to changes in the acidity of the spring waters.
Looking at single species, bryophytes did not show a higher sensitivity to the inter‐annual
variability of the environment than vascular plants. Actually, only a minority of all species
featured abundance changes which were significantly correlated to variations in spring water
acidity. Our results suggest that the species inertia retards the vegetation dynamics of forest
springs. A delayed or long‐term integrating response of potential indicator species must be
considered when evaluating their indicator suitability. In conclusion, the biomonitoring of
spring water acidification or recovery is expedient only for longer time intervals.

In a nutshell, the vegetation of springs is closely related to the hydrochemical traits of the
spring waters, in particular to a gradient of acidity and nutrient availability. Individual
species as well as whole plant communities are suitable indicators which allow for the
monitoring of the acidity status of forested catchments. The results of this study contribute to
a better understanding of the species‐environment‐relationships, and in return to an improvement of indicator systems.

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