Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Massachusetts
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Roy, A.H., A.D. Rosemond, D.S. Leigh, M.J. Paul, and J.B. Wallace. 2003. Habitat-specific responses of macroinvertebrates to land cover disturbance: biological consequences and monitoring implications. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 22:292-307.


Changes in catchment land cover can impact stream ecosystems through altered hydrology and subsequent increases in sedimentation and nonpoint-source pollutants. These stressors can affect habitat suitability and water quality for aquatic invertebrates. We studied the impact of a range of physical and chemical stressors on aquatic insects, and tested whether the effects of these stressors differed in 3 habitat types: riffles, pools, and banks. Our study was conducted in Piedmont streams in Georgia (USA) where catchment development pressure and the potential for aquatic biodiversity loss are high. We sampled 3 replicates of riffle, pool, and bank habitats within a 100-m reach of 29 streams (11–126 km2) that varied in catchment land cover. Correlations between environmental variables and aquatic insects (both richness and density) within habitat types indicated that riffle habitats (vs pool and bank habitats) exhibited the strongest relations with environmental variables. Riffle assemblages were negatively affected by both physical (e.g., bed mobility) and chemical (e.g., specific conductance, nutrient concentrations) variables. The density of aquatic insects in pools was also correlated to physical and chemical variables, but there were few relationships with pool or bank richness or bank density. Because of greater relative impacts of disturbance in riffles versus banks, we found greater differences between riffle and bank richness in streams with greater sediment disturbance. The proportion of bank richness (bank richness/bank + riffle richness) increased with finer bed sediment (r2 = 0.43) and increased bed mobility (r2 = 0.35). We compared richness of facultative taxa (found in multiple habitats) between sites we characterized as minimally impacted and sediment-impacted. In riffles, richness of facultative taxa was lower in sediment-impacted vs minimally impacted sites (11.0 vs 20.2, p = 0.002, t-test), but was similar for both disturbance groups in banks (20.1 vs 22.7, p > 0.05, t-test). Our results suggest that taxa richness may be retained in bank habitats when riffle quality is poor and banks may serve as a refuge in highly disturbed systems. Such shifts in the distribution of benthos may be an early warning indicator of biotic impairment and have implications for biomonitoring and maintenance of habitat.