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Disentangling responses to natural stressor and human impact gradients in river ecosystems across Europe


Stubbington, Rachel et al. (2021), Disentangling responses to natural stressor and human impact gradients in river ecosystems across Europe, Dryad, Dataset,


1. Rivers are dynamic ecosystems in which both human impacts and climate-driven drying events are increasingly common. These anthropogenic and natural stressors interact to influence the biodiversity and functioning of river ecosystems. Disentangling ecological responses to these interacting stressors is necessary to guide management actions that support ecosystems adapting to global change.

2. We analysed the independent and interactive effects of human impacts and natural drying on aquatic invertebrate communities—a key biotic group used to assess the health of European freshwaters. We calculated biological response metrics representing communities from 406 rivers in eight European countries: taxonomic richness, functional richness and redundancy, and two biomonitoring indices that indicate ecological status. We analysed metrics based on the whole community and a group of taxa with traits promoting resistance and/or resilience (‘high RR’) to drying. We also examined how responses vary across Europe in relation to climatic aridity.

3. Most community metrics decreased independently in response to impacts and drying. A richness-independent biomonitoring index (the average score per taxon; ASPT) showed particular potential for use in biomonitoring, and should be considered alongside new metrics representing high RR diversity, to promote accurate assessment of ecological status.

4. High RR taxonomic richness responded only to impacts, not drying. However, these predictors explained little variance in richness and other high RR metrics, potentially due to low taxonomic richness. Metric responsiveness could thus be enhanced by developing region-specific high RR groups comprising sufficient taxa with sufficiently variable impact sensitivities to indicate ecological status.

5. Synthesis and applications. Our results inform recommendations guiding the development of metrics to assess the ecological status of dynamic river ecosystems—including those that sometimes dry—thus identifying priority sites requiring further investigation to identify the stressors responsible for environmental degradation. We recommend concurrent consideration of richness-independent biomonitoring indices (such as an ASPT) and new high RR richness metrics that characterize groups of resistant and resilient taxa for region-specific river types. Interactions observed between aridity, impacts and drying evidence that these new metrics should be adaptable, promoting their ability to inform management actions that protect river ecosystems responding to climate change.


European Cooperation in Science and Technology, Award: CA15113