Self-organization of river vegetation leads to emergent buffering of river flows and water levels

Loreta Cornacchia*, Geraldene Wharton, Grieg Davies, Robert C. Grabowski, Stijn Temmerman, Daphne van der Wal, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Johan van de Koppel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
132 Downloads (Pure)


Global climate change is expected to impact hydrodynamic conditions in stream ecosystems. There is limited understanding of how stream ecosystems interact and possibly adapt to novel hydrodynamic conditions. Combining mathematical modelling with field data, we demonstrate that bio-physical feedback between plant growth and flow redistribution triggers spatial self-organization of in-channel vegetation that buffers for changed hydrological conditions. The interplay of vegetation growth and hydrodynamics results in a spatial separation of the stream into densely vegetated, low-flow zones divided by unvegetated channels of higher flow velocities. This self-organization process decouples both local flow velocities and water levels from the forcing effect of changing stream discharge. Field data from two lowland, baseflow-dominated streams support model predictions and highlight two important stream-level emergent properties: vegetation controls flow conveyance in fast-flowing channels throughout the annual growth cycle, and this buffering of discharge variations maintains water depths and wetted habitat for the stream community. Our results provide important evidence of how plant-driven self-organization allows stream ecosystems to adapt to changing hydrological conditions,
maintaining suitable hydrodynamic conditions to support high biodiversity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20201147
Pages (from-to)1-10
JournalPhilosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London B. Biological sciences
Issue number1931
Early online date15 Jul 2020
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2020




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