Digging deep for diversity: Riparian seed bank abundance and species richness in relation to burial depth

Jessica O'Donnell*, Kirstie Fryirs, Michelle R. Leishman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Soil and sediment seed banks contribute to the diversity of riparian plant communities. In degraded river systems, seed banks represent an important regeneration niche that may contribute to restoration efforts through the establishment of vegetation. The vertical dimension of seed banks has been neglected in river research, despite its importance for the regeneration of vegetation after disturbances such as erosive floods. We sampled sediment at various depths within three geomorphological features: bars, benches and the floodplain, across four river reaches in the Wollombi subcatchment of New South Wales, Australia. A seedling emergence study was conducted to characterise the abundance and species richness of the germinable seed bank within these sediments. We hypothesised that the vertical distribution of seeds in bars and benches would show no clear pattern, but that bars would have lower propagule counts overall, due to their non-cohesive sediment and potential for frequent reworking by low-level flows. The floodplain seed bank, in contrast, would resemble that of terrestrial systems, with propagule abundance decreasing markedly with depth due to infrequent inundation and sediment reworking. In total, 9456 seedlings emerged, representing 131 different species (83 native and 47 exotic) from 47 families. Propagule abundance and species richness in bar and bench seed banks were highly variable with depth, with the greatest average propagule numbers found at 25-30 cm and 20-25 cm, respectively. In contrast, and as hypothesised, propagule abundance and species richness in the floodplain decreased significantly with depth. Propagule abundance was surprisingly variable in bars, with some displaying extremely high values and others containing no detectable seeds, although overall species richness was significantly lower than in benches and the floodplain. The vertical distribution of seeds in bars, benches and floodplains may be determined by the proportional influence of hydrochory (seed transport and deposition by water) during deposition events and seed losses, resulting from sediment reworking and erosion, set within the timescales over which they are formed and reworked. Bar seed banks are continually flushed by frequent inundation and reworking, especially at the surface, reducing seed deposition and burial. Abundant seed fall may be provided by local vegetation, however. Diverse seed banks in benches may form through alternating periods of hydrochoric seed deposition along with sediment, augmented during periods of exposure when propagules from the extant vegetation accumulate. Decreases in germinable propagule abundance and species richness with depth in the floodplain may reflect much slower rates of vertical accretion and seed losses due to mortality over time. Finally, we present some implications for the management of riparian vegetation and applications for river restoration.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)100-113
Number of pages14
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


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