Formation, distribution and ecological consequences of flood-related wood debris piles in a bedrock confined river in semi-arid South Africa

Neil E. Pettit, Joshua J. Latterell, Robert J. Naiman

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28 Citations (Scopus)


The Sabie River, located within the semi-arid savanna of South Africa, experienced a ∼100-year return interval flood in 2000, providing a rare opportunity to quantify the resultant pattern and consequence of woody debris piles for riparian areas. Biophysical attributes of rivers in arid and semi-arid regions differ strongly from those in mesic regions, but differences in the role and dynamics of woody debris remain largely unknown. Our primary goal was to determine the basic ecology and distribution of wood piles formed by a large infrequent flood in a bedrock-confined river. In particular, we sought to determine the mechanism of pile formation, their position, size, and structural attributes of piles as well as regeneration from resprouting and seedling recruitment within piles in different channel types. We observed relatively distinct patterns of distribution and mechanisms of formation in 421 piles and provide a description of the distribution, abundance and short-term fate of each pile type. Patterns of wood accumulation were largely controlled by characteristics of the trapping sites, particularly toppled trees that remain rooted in their growth location. In general, wood was primarily strewn against toppled, transported and standing trees, though several large piles formed on bedrock outcrops. Buried piles were also discovered upon excavation of depositional features (alluvial mounds). Resprouting of toppled trees with intact roots and living tissues was the dominant mode of vegetation reestablishment in the piles. We observed resprouting in 36% of piles surveyed. Resprouting piles were most common (48%) in the seasonally inundated portion of the macro-channel. Tree seedlings were recorded in 28% of the piles. The flood appeared to create heterogeneity in the establishment of new woody vegetation by forming distinct wood piles from the ruins of the previous riparian forest. Even though the input of wood to semi-arid rivers appears to be a fairly rare occurrence and wood piles are rapidly depleted by decay and fire, we expect their influence will be long-lived, preserved in the pattern of vegetation establishment and alluvial mounds within the macro-channel.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1097-1110
Number of pages14
JournalRiver Research and Applications
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2006
Externally publishedYes


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