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Self-organization of a biogeomorphic landscape controlled by plant life-history traits


Feedbacks between geomorphology and plants are increasingly recognized as key drivers shaping a variety of landscapes. Most studies of biogeomorphic interactions have focused on the influence of physical plant characteristics, such as stem and root density, on landscape morphodynamics without considering the role of life-history traits. However, pioneer plants can have very different colonization behaviours. Fast colonizers are characterized by a high number of establishing seedlings that produce homogenous vegetation patterns. In contrast, slow colonizers are characterized by a low number of establishing seedlings that are able to expand laterally, resulting in patchy vegetation patterns. Here we combine biogeomorphic model simulations and field observations in the Western Scheldt Estuary, the Netherlands, to show that colonization behaviour can influence the evolution of wetland landscapes. We find that colonization by fast colonizers favours stabilization of pre-existing channels and consolidation of the landscape configuration. In contrast, colonization by slow colonizers facilitates the formation of new channels and thereby actively facilitates further landscape self-organization. Our findings underline the key role of life-history traits in steering landscape self-organization across different biogeomorphic systems, and potentially the long-term resilience of these landscapes to disturbances.

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Fig. 1: False-colour aerial images showing the vegetation and channel development at reference field sites.
Fig. 2: Numerical model results (N1) show the development of vegetation cover and mUPL over a five-year simulation period for fast and slow colonizers.
Fig. 3: Numerical model results (N2) disentangling the effect of life-history strategies and physical plant properties for Spartina.
Fig. 4: Numerical model results (N2) disentangling the effect of life-history strategies and physical plant properties for Salicornia.
Fig. 5: Conceptual models showing equivalent timescales between vegetation colonization and morphological development are required for the emergence of self-organized dynamics.


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We thank M. Kleinhans for discussions on the evolution of vegetated landscapes under varying morphological development rates and H. Mariash for discussions on further implications of our findings. This research was partly supported by the Hedwige Prosper polder project financed by the Vlaams-Nederlandse Scheldecommissie (VNSC), Waterwegen & Zeekanaal (W&Z) and the Provincie Zeeland. The research presented here was partly supported by the Dutch Technology Foundation STW (Vici project 13709), which is part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and which is partly funded by the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

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C.S, O.G., N.C. and J.v.B. designed the model experiments and analysed the data. Z.Z., G.R. and J.v.d.K. contributed to interpreting the paper. C.S., S.T. and T.J.B. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Christian Schwarz.

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Schwarz, C., Gourgue, O., van Belzen, J. et al. Self-organization of a biogeomorphic landscape controlled by plant life-history traits. Nature Geosci 11, 672–677 (2018).

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