Landscapes in the humid tropics are undergoing a continuous change in land use. Deforestation is still taking its toll on forested areas, but at the same time more and more secondary forests emerge where formerly agricultural lands and pastures are being abandoned. Regarding soil hydrology, the extent to which secondary succession can recover soil hydrological properties disturbed by antecedent deforestation and pasture use is yet poorly understood. We investigated the effect of secondary succession on saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ks) at two soil depths (0–6 and 6–12cm) using a space-for-time approach in a landscape mosaic in central Panama. The following four land-use classes were studied: pasture (P), secondary forest of 5–8 years of age (SF5), secondary forest of 12–15 years of age (SF12) and secondary forest of more than 100 years of age (SF100), each replicated altogether four times in different micro-catchments across the study region. The hydrological implications of differences in Ks in response to land-use change with land use, especially regarding overland flow generation, were assessed via comparisons with rainfall intensities. Recovery of Ks could be detected in the 0–6cm depth after 12 years of secondary succession: P and SF5 held similar Ks values, but differed significantly (α=0.05) from SF12 and SF100 which in turn were indistinguishable. Variability within the land cover classes was large but, due to sufficient replication in the study, Ks recovery could be detected nonetheless. Ks in the 6–12cm depth did not show any differences between the land cover classes; only Ks of the uppermost soil layer was affected by land-use changes. Overland flow – as inferred from comparisons of Ks with rainfall intensities – is more likely on P and SF5 sites compared to SF12 and SF100 for the upper sample depth; however, generally low values at the 6–12cm depth are likely to impede vertical percolation during high rainfall intensities regardless of land use. We conclude that Ks can recover from pasture use under secondary succession up to pre-pasture levels, but the process may take more than 8 years. In order to gain comprehensive understanding of Ks change with land use and its hydrological implications, more studies with detailed land-use histories and combined measurements of Ks, overland flow, precipitation and throughfall are essential.
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