Vegetation of wetlands of the prairie pothole region

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Edited by:
A. van der Valk


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Five themes dominate the literature dealing with the vegetation of palustrine and lacustrine wetlands of the prairie pothole region: environmental conditions (water or moisture regime, salinity), agricultural disturbances (draining, grazing, burning, sedimentation, etc.), vegetation dynamics, zonation patterns, and classification of the wetlands.The flora of a prairie wetland is a function of its water regime, salinity, and disturbance by man. Within a pothole, water depth and duration determines distribution of species. In potholes deep enough to have standing water even during droughts, the central zone will be dominated by submersed species (open water). In wetlands that go dry during periods of drought or annually, the central zone will be dominated by either tall emergent species (deep marsh) or midheight emergents (shallow marsh), respectively. Potholes that are only flooded briefly in the spring are dominated by grasses, sedges, and forbs (wet meadow). Within a pothole, the depth of standing water in the deepest, usually central, part of the basin determines how many zones will be present. Lists of species associated with different water regimes and salinity levels are presented.Disturbances due to agricultural activities have impacted wetlands throughout the region. Drainage has eliminated many potholes, particularly in the southern and eastern parts of the region. Grazing, mowing, and burning have altered the composition of pothole vegetation. The composition of different vegetation types impacted by grazing, haying, and cultivation is presented in a series of tables. Indirect impacts of agriculture (increased sediment, nutrient, and pesticide inputs) are widespread over the region, but their impacts on the vegetation have never been studied.Because of the periodic droughts and wet periods, many palustrine and lacustrine wetlands undergo vegetation cycles associated with water-level changes produced by these wet-dry cycles. Periods of above normal precipitation can raise water levels high enough to drown out emergent vegetation or produce 'eat outs' due to increases in the size of muskrat populations that accompany periods of high water. The elimination of emergents creates a lake marsh dominated by submersed vegetation. During the next drought when the marsh bottom is exposed by receding water levels (a drawdown), seeds of emergents and mudflat annuals in the soil (the seed bank) germinate (the dry marsh stage). When the marsh refloods, ending the dry marsh stage, the emergents survive and spread vegetatively. This is the regenerating marsh. This stage continues until high water again eliminates the emergents, starting the next degenerating stage.Zonation patterns are conspicuous because each zone often is dominated by a single species that has a lifeform different from those in adjacent zones. The species composition of each zone is a function of its environment (water or moisture regime, salinity, and disturbance history). Within a zone it may take a year or more for species composition to adjust to a change of environmental conditions. These lags sometimes result in abnormal zonation patterns, particularly after a change in water level.Classification of prairie wetlands is more difficult than for most other wetland type, because of these vegetation cycles. Early attempts to classify prairie wetlands did not take the dynamic nature of their vegetation into account. Stewart and Kantrud (1971) developed a classification system for prairie potholes that recognized different phases of vegetation zones dominated by deep marsh species. It used the composition of the vegetation in the deepest part (zone) of a pothole as an indicator of its water-level regime and water chemistry. The application of the national wetland classification system of Cowardin et al. (1979) to potholes is also discussed, and lists of species that characterize the various dominance types associated with the subclasses in this system are presented.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Book chapter
Publication Subtype:
Book Chapter
Vegetation of wetlands of the prairie pothole region
Year Published:
Iowa State University Press
Publisher location:
Ames, IA
Contributing office(s):
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
p. 132-187 [400 pp.]
Larger Work Type:
Larger Work Subtype:
Other Government Series
Larger Work Title:
Northern prairie wetlands