The influence of stream channels on distributions of Larrea tridentata and Ambrosia dumosa in the Mojave Desert, CA, USA: patterns, mechanisms and effects of stream redistribution

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John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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Drainage channels are among the most conspicuous surficial features of deserts, but little quantitative analysis of their influence on plant distributions is available. We analysed the effects of desert stream channels (‘washes’) on Larrea tridentata and Ambrosia dumosa density and cover on an alluvial piedmont in the Mojave Desert, based on a spatial analysis of transect data encompassing a total length of 2775 m surveyed in 5 cm increments. Significant deviations from average transect properties were identified by bootstrapping. Predictably, shrub cover and density were much reduced inside washes, and elevated above average levels adjacent to washes. Average Larrea and Ambrosia cover and density peaked 1·2–1·6 m and 0·5–1·0 m from wash edges, respectively. We compared wash effects in runon-depleted (−R) sections, where washes had been cut off from runon and were presumably inactive, with those in runon-supplemented (+R) sections downslope from railroad culverts to help identify mechanisms responsible for the facilitative effect of washes on adjacent shrubs. Shrub cover and density near washes peaked in both + R and − R sections, suggesting that improved water infiltration and storage alone can cause a facilitative effect on adjacent shrubs. However, washes of < 2 m width in + R sections had larger than average effects on peak cover, suggesting that plants also benefit from occasional resource supplementation. The data suggest that channel networks significantly contribute to structuring plant communities in the Mojave Desert and their disruption has notable effects on geomorphic and ecological processes far beyond the original disturbance sites.


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