Springs are characterized by consistent thermal and hydrologic conditions, which enable use of spring-inhabiting organisms as sensitive indicators of biogeochemical changes in their catchments. We hypothesized that bryophytes would show a stronger response than vascular plants to changes in spring water quality because submerged bryophytes do not take up compounds from the soil. We analyzed species responses to interannual changes in spring water quality (discharge, water temperature, electrical conductivity, and pH) in 57 forest springs over 4 consecutive years. We calculated interannual turnover in species composition for bryophytes and vascular plants with the Bray–Curtis dissimilarity index. We applied regression analysis to test interannual changes in species composition of the taxonomic groups over time, and we used 2-sided t-tests to compare year-to-year changes in species composition between bryophytes and vascular plants. We used boosted regression tree (BRT) models to quantify the relative importance of different physicochemical variables and Pearson linear correlation to quantify short-term changes in vegetation relative to changes in spring-water pH. For both groups, interannual changes in species composition were significantly positively related to time scale. Bryophytes did not show a significantly stronger response than vascular plants to interannual changes in the environment. Alterations in pH and conductivity explained most of the observed interannual changes in species composition of both groups, whereas changes in water temperature and discharge were less important. However, responses of single species to environmental change may be delayed, resulting in inertia at the community and ecosystem scales. Hence, longer time periods need to be considered for a better understanding of response times of the vegetation of European forest springs to changes in spring water quality.
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