Variation in riparian and stream assemblages across the primary succession landscape of Mount St. Helens, U.S.A.


Although most lotic ecosystems experience frequent and sometimes large disturbances, opportunities are uncommon to study primary succession in streams. Exceptions include new stream channels arising from events such as glacial retreat, volcanism, and catastrophic landslides. In 1980, the eruption and massive landslide at Mount St. Helens (WA, U.S.A.) created an entire landscape with five new catchments undergoing primary succession. We asked if riparian and lotic assemblages at early successional stages (36 years after the eruption) showed predictable change along longitudinal gradients within catchments, and whether assemblages were similar among five replicate catchments. In July 2016, we collected environmental data and characterised riparian, algal, and benthic macroinvertebrate assemblages at 21 stream reaches distributed within and among five neighbouring catchments. We evaluated patterns of richness, abundance, biomass, multivariate taxonomic community structure, and functional traits both longitudinally and among catchments. We found minimal evidence that longitudinal gradients had developed within catchments at 36 years post-eruption. Increases in diatom and macroinvertebrate richness with downstream distance were the only biological responses with longitudinal trends. Conversely, we documented substantial variation in community structure of riparian plants, soft-bodied algae, diatoms, and macroinvertebrates at the among-catchment scale. Among-catchment differences consistently separated two eastern catchments from three western catchments, and these two groups also differed in stream water chemistry, water temperature, and geomorphology. Overall, we documented greater diversity in the young catchments than predicted by ecologists in the years immediately following the eruption, yet functional traits indicate that these catchments are still in relatively early stages of succession. Variation at the among-catchment scale is likely to be driven in part by hydrological source variation, with the two eastern catchments showing environmental signatures associated with glacial ice-melt and the three western catchments probably fed primarily by springs from groundwater aquifers. Contemporary flow disturbance regimes also varied among catchments and successional trajectories were probably reset repeatedly in streams experiencing more frequent disturbance. Similar to new stream channels formed following glacial retreat, our results support a tolerance model of succession in streams. However, contrasting abiotic templates among Mount St. Helens catchments appear to be driving different successional trajectories of riparian plant, algal, and macroinvertebrate assemblages among neighbouring small catchments sharing the same catastrophic disturbance history.



Document Type





catchment evolution, community assembly, disturbance, stream succession, volcanic eruption, watershed

Publication Date


Journal Title

Freshwater Biology