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Encroachment of upland Mediterranean plant species in riparian ecosystems of southern Portugal


Riparian ecosystems have unique biodiversity, are highly sensitive to disturbance and anthropogenic influence. As world water resources become scarcer, scientists predict greater competition among species for water resources. Indeed, increased encroachment of upland plants into the riparian zone is already occurring, irreversibly changing riparian plant communities. Since semi-arid regions such as Mediterranean-type ecosystems are likely to follow this same trajectory, assessing the contributions of riparian versus upland (sclerophyllous) plants to community composition is important. A survey of seventy 2 km-long riparian transects on the Sado and Guadiana watersheds in southern Portugal assessed (1) the woody riparian plant community composition, (2) how much richness is due to strictly riparian plants versus sclerophyllous upland plants, and (3) which combinations of biotic and abiotic factors allow higher species richness in the strictly riparian, sclerophyllous, and overall plant communities. The survey detected 53 different woody plant species (28 endemic) across all communities. Riparian community richness was on average 16 species, seven of which were strictly riparian and the remainder being sclerophyllous, exotic species or fruit trees. Sclerophyllous plant species occurred consistently across sampling units (90% of transects). On average, 46% of the total woody plant community richness was due to strictly riparian plants and 28% was due to sclerophyllous plants. Community richness was positively affected by the area of shrubs in the riparian zone and by the absence of human activities and goats. Surrounding landscape pattern only affected the strictly riparian plant richness. These results suggest that natural and human-mediated disturbances in riparian ecosystems create gaps and clearings for which riparian and sclerophyllous plants compete. Establishment success seems to be related to the propagule pressure of the neighbouring landscape, its diversity and density, as well as the presence of herbivores. Preserving strictly riparian plants, removing exotic species, preventing grazing, and promoting riparian values (recreation, aesthetics and the provision of ecosystem services) will aid the future conservation of the unique biodiversity of riparian ecosystems.

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