Given the potential effect of invasive plants and animals to water fluxes through forests, the invasive-driven degradation of native ecosystems is a topic of great concern for many downstream land and water managers. The infiltration rate determines the partitioning between runoff and infiltration into soil in Hawaiian forests and beyond. Thus, to explore the ecohydrological effects of plant and animal invasion in mesic and wet forests in Hawaii, we measured soil infiltration capacity in multiple fenced (i.e., ungulate-free)/unfenced and native/invaded forest sites along moisture and substrate age gradients across the islands of Hawai‘i and Kaua‘i. We also characterized forest composition and structure and soil characteristics at these sites to assess the direct and vegetation-mediated impacts of invasive species on infiltration capacity.
Infiltration capacity is highly variable across forested sites and the wider landscape. Much of this variability is determined by a complex set of soil, vegetation, and disturbance factors that affect infiltration capacity at the immediate surrounding of measurement plots. Consequently, the effect of any given factor can be masked by variability in other factors. However, by controlling for variability in soil and vegetation conditions at a local plot level, we found that the presence of invasive species in forests has complex and sometimes non-intuitive effects on infiltration.
Our final models showed that invasive ungulates negatively affect soil infiltration capacity consistently across the wide moisture and substrate age gradients considered. Additionally, because several soil characteristics known to be affected by ungulates were associated with local infiltration rates (e.g., soil organic matter, bare soil cover, soil depth), the long-term secondary effects of high ungulate densities in Hawaiian forests may be higher than effects observed in this study. These results provide clear evidence for land managers that ungulate control efforts likely improve ecohydrologic function to mesic and wet forest systems critical to protecting downstream and nearshore resources and maintaining groundwater recharge.
Compared to ungulate effects, the effect of invasive plants on water infiltration capacity in Hawaiian forests appeared much more complex. In general, elements of forest structure including increased canopy, understory and floor cover, greater presence of large roots, and lower grass and bare soil covers were positively associated with water infiltration. Whether native or not, a plant species’ potential to alter infiltration rates in Hawaiian forests was likely to depend on its physiognomy and how it affects forest community structure. For instance, while the cover of native dominant tree ‘ōhi‘a, Metrosideros polymorpha, was found to be positively associated with infiltration capacity (perhaps as an indicator of overall forest integrity), invasive Himalayan ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum, was also positively correlated with infiltration capacity, possibly due to preferential flow channels created by the presence of large root mats.
Few studies have conducted comprehensive integrated ecological and hydrological sampling in forests of high conservation value. While we show there are large benefits to understanding how conservation efforts may help shape water fluxes, we also found that the commonly used study design for infiltration studies used here and elsewhere (i.e., adjacent paired sites) could be modified to provide more accurate effects of invasion in future studies for ecosystems in Hawaii and beyond.