Ecological limit functions relating fish community response to hydrologic departures of the ecological flow regime in the Tennessee River basin, United States



Ecological limit functions relating streamflow and aquatic ecosystems remain elusive despite decades of research. We investigated functional relationships between species richness and changes in streamflow characteristics at 662 fish sampling sites in the Tennessee River basin. Our approach included the following: (1) a brief summary of relevant literature on functional relations between fish and streamflow, (2) the development of ecological limit functions that describe the strongest discernible relationships between fish species richness and streamflow characteristics, (3) the evaluation of proposed definitions of hydrologic reference conditions, and (4) an investigation of the internal structures of wedge-shaped distributions underlying ecological limit functions.

Twenty-one ecological limit functions were developed across three ecoregions that relate the species richness of 11 fish groups and departures from hydrologic reference conditions using multivariate and quantile regression methods. Each negatively sloped function is described using up to four streamflow characteristics expressed in terms of cumulative departure from hydrologic reference conditions. Negative slopes indicate increased departure results in decreased species richness.

Sites with the highest measured fish species richness generally had near-reference hydrologic conditions for a given ecoregion. Hydrology did not generally differ between sites with the highest and lowest fish species richness, indicating that other environmental factors likely limit species richness at sites with reference hydrology.

Use of ecological limit functions to make decisions regarding proposed hydrologic regime changes, although commonly presented as a management tool, is not as straightforward or informative as often assumed. We contend that statistical evaluation of the internal wedge structure below limit functions may provide a probabilistic understanding of how aquatic ecology is influenced by altered hydrology and may serve as the basis for evaluating the potential effect of proposed hydrologic changes. Published 2013. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA. Ecohydrology published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.