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Running water ecology is a young science, the conceptual foundations of which were derived largely from research conducted in Europe and North America. However, virtually all European river corridors were substantially regulated well before the science of river ecology developed. While regulation of North American river systems occurred later than in European systems, river ecology also developed later. Therefore, there is a general impression of rivers as being much less heterogeneous and much more stable than they actually are in the natural state. The thesis of this paper is that established research and management concepts may fail to fully recognize the crucial roles of habitat heterogeneity and fluvial dynamics owing to a lack of fundamental knowledge of the structural and functional features of morphologically intact river corridors. Until quite recently, most concepts in river ecology were based on the implicit assumption that rivers are stable, single-thread channels isolated from adjacent floodplains. Unfortunately, many rivers are in just such a state, but it should be recognized that this is not the natural condition. This incomplete understanding constrains scientific advances in river ecology and renders management and restoration initiatives less effective. Examples are given of the high level of spatio-temporal heterogeneity that may be attained in rivers where natural processes still operate on a large scale. The objective of this paper is to promulgate a broader and more integrative understanding of natural processes in river corridors as a necessary prelude to effective river conservation and management. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.