A railroad in Kashmir Himalaya

Kashmir Himalaya. A region famous for its breathtaking heights and steep mountain regions. From 1994 to 2013, the Indian government here worked on one of the most challenging railway lines of the world, facing major earthquake zones, extreme temperatures and inhospitable terrain, and including India’s highest railway bridge.

That’s the setting of our latest paper: we surveyed native and non-native plant vegetation along the whole stretch of the railroad to monitor its effects on plant species distributions.

Railway of Kashmir Himalaya : (a) map of the railway, with marked localities of the sampling sites,
(b) a view of a railway station, (c) a sampling site between stations illustrating
the sampling design

Both in 2014 and 2017, we (and with ‘we’, I mean Irfan Rashid and his team in Kashmir, as I was safely at home in charge of statistical analyses) collected vegetation data along T-shaped transects, adopting the common MIREN (Mountain Invasion Research Network, www.mountaininvasions.org) road survey design that might be familiar to many following this blog.

So what did we find? Plant communities changed significantly between 2014 and 2017, driven by declines in both native and non-native species richness, and increasing abundance of a few non-native species, especially in areas away from the railway track.

That both native and non-native richness would decline was unexpected, yet these patterns seem to suggest an advancing succession, where initially – rare – pioneer species are replaced by increasingly dominant and often non-native competitors. Additionally, it could suggest a trend towards delayed local extinctions after the disturbance resulting from building the railway.

Arundo donax, or giant reed, one of the non-native species expanding most rapidly in the region.
Picture by Forest and Kim Starr – [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21416505

What is clear is that the plant communities next to railways do not reach equilibrium quickly after a disturbance. More than ten years after railway establishment, succession continued, and signs point towards a landscape increasingly dominated by non-native species. Our study indicates that the single disturbance event associated with constructing a railway in this Himalayan region had large and long-lasting effects on plant communities at and around this transport corridor.

Importantly, the one railway in the Kashmir valley is currently still disconnected from the national railroad system, with plans under way to finish that connection in the near future. As has been shown elsewhere, such a connection with the rest of the country would further play into the cards of non-native species. We thus highlight the need for a long-term region-wide coordinated monitoring and management program to limit further spread of such non-natives, and make specific recommendations of what is needed to manage the vegetation at and around the railway through Kashmir valley, especially with the planned connection of the railway with the rest of the countries railroad network in mind.

Conium maculatum
Conium maculatum, another rapidly expanding non-native in the region.
Picture by Djtanng – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49059037

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