Abstract This study focuses on the relationships between plant dispersal syndromes and plant distributions at the community scale. Species composition and cover are reported from 29 10 × 20-m vegetation plots along five topographic cross-sections in the riparian zone of the Hassayampa River Preserve, Arizona. We find that spatial patterns of dispersal guilds vary within the flood plain of this semiarid region river. Our main results are: (1) wind-dispersed species are fairly evenly distributed at all elevations and distances from the river, whereas cover of animal-dispersed species increases with elevation above, and at greater distances from, the river; (2) wind-dispersed species are proportionally more abundant in the pioneer Populus–Salix community, whereas plants in the late-seral Prosopis community are predominantly animal-dispersed; (3) most of the species classified as obligate-wetland and facultative-wetland are wind-dispersed, whereas facultative-upland and obligate-upland species are mostly animal-dispersed; and (4) there are significantly fewer wind-dispersed species in areas of high total vegetation cover. These results may reflect successional patterns resulting from periodic flooding. Low areas close to the river flood more frequently and with greater intensity than areas farther from the river. Many pioneer species that establish in disturbed areas are wind-dispersed. Over successional time, pioneer species cede to more drought tolerant species that are predominantly animal-dispersed.