Vegetation zonation was investigated at an intermountain playa wetland (Mishak Lakes) in the San Luis Valley (SLV) of southern Colorado. Plant composition and abiotic conditions were quantified in six vegetation zones. Reciprocal transplants were performed to test the importance of abiotic factors in governing zonation. Abiotic conditions differed among several vegetation zones. Prolonged inundation led to anaerobic soils in the Eleocharis palustris and the submerged aquatics zones, on the low end of the site's 1.25 m elevation gradient. On the high end of the gradient, soil salinity and sodicity (a measure of exchangeable sodium) were high in the Distichlis spicata zone (electrical conductivity, EC = 5.3 dS/m, sodium absorption ratio, SAR = 44.0) and extreme in the Sarcobatus vermiculatus zone (EC = 21 dS/m, SAR = 274). Transplanted species produced maximum biomass in the zone where they originated, not in any other higher or lower vegetation zone. The greatest overall transplant effect occurred for E. palustris, which experienced a ≥ 77% decline in productivity when transplanted to other zones. This study provides evidence that physical factors are a major determinant of vegetation zone composition and distribution across the entire elevation gradient at Mishak Lakes. Patterns at Mishak Lakes arise from counter-directional stress gradients: a gradient from anaerobic to well-oxygenated from basin bottom to upland and a gradient from extremely high salinity to low salinity in the opposing direction. Because abiotic conditions dominate vegetation zonation, restoration of the altered hydrologic regime of this wetland to a natural hydrologic regime may be sufficient to re-establish many of the natural biodiversity functions provided by these wetlands.
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Vol. 28 • No. 4