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The boundaries of river systems: the metazoan perspective


Prof. J.V. Ward. E-mail:


1. This overview of metazoans associated with the riparian/groundwater interface focuses on the fauna inhabiting substratum interstices within the stream bed and in alluvial aquifers beneath the floodplain. The objective is to integrate knowledge of habitat conditions and ecology of the interstitial fauna into a broad spatiotemporal perspective of lotic ecosystems.

2. Most aquatic metazoans of terrestrial ancestry, secondarily aquatic forms including insects and water mites (Hydracarina), are largely confined to surface waters (epigean), most of the time penetrating only the superficial interstices of the stream bed.

3. Primary aquatic metazoans include crustaceans and other groups whose entire evolutionary histories took place in water. Some species are epigean, whereas other members of the primary aquatic fauna are true subterranean forms (hypogean), residing deep within the stream bed and in alluvial aquifers some distance laterally from the channel.

4. The hypogean/epigean affinities of interstitial animals are reflected in repetitive gradients of species distribution patterns along vertical (depth within the stream bed), longitudinal (riffle/pool), and lateral (across the floodplain) spatial dimensions, as well as along recovery trajectories following floods (temporal dimension).

5. Fluvial dynamics and sediment characteristics interact to determine hydraulic conductivity, oxygen levels, pore space, particle size heterogeneity, organic content and other habitat conditions within the interstitial milieu.

6. Multidimensional environmental gradients occur at various scales across riparian/groundwater boundary zones. The spatiotemporal variability of hydrogeomorphological processes plays an important role in determining habitat heterogeneity, habitat stability, and connectivity between habitat patches, thereby structuring biodiversity patterns across the riverine landscape.

7. The erosive action of flooding maintains a diversity of hydrarch and riparian successional stages in alluvial floodplains. The patchy distribution patterns of interstitial communities at the floodplain scale reflect, in part, the spatial heterogeneity engendered by successional processes.

8. Interstitial metazoans engage in passive and active movements between surface waters and ground waters, between aquatic and riparian habitats, and between different habitat types within the lotic system. Some of these are extensive migrations that involve significant exchange of organic matter and energy between ecosystem compartments.

9. The generally high resilience of lotic ecosystems to disturbance is attributable, in part, to high spatiotemporal heterogeneity. Habitat patches less affected by a particular perturbation may serve as ’refugia ‘; from which survivors recolonize more severely affected areas. Mechanisms of refugium use may also occur within habitats, as, for example, through ontogenetic shifts in microhabitat use. Rigorous investigations of interstitial habitats as refugia should lead to a clearer understanding of the roles of disturbance and stochasticity in lotic ecosystems.

10. Development of realistic ’whole river ‘; food webs have been constrained by the exclusion of interstitial metazoans, which may in fact contribute the majority of energy flow in lotic ecosystems. A related problem is failure to include groundwater/riparian habitats as integral components of alluvial rivers. A conceptual model is presented that integrates groundwater and riparian systems into riverine food webs and that reflects the spatiotemporal complexity of the physical system and connectivity between different components.

11. Interstitial metazoans also serve as ’ecosystem engineers, ‘; by influencing the availability of resouces to other species and by modifying habitat conditions within the sediment. For example, by grazing on biofilm, interstitial animals may markedly stimulate bacterial growth rates and nutrient dynamics.

12. Although there has been a recent surge of interest in the role of interstitial animals in running waters, the knowledge gaps are vast. For example, basic environmental requirements of the majority of groundwater metazoans remain uninvestigated. Virtually nothing is known regarding the role of biotic interactions in structuring faunal distribution patterns across groundwater/riparian boundary zones. Interstitial metazoans may contribute significantly to the total productivity and energy flow of the biosphere, but such data are not available. Nor are sufficient data available to determine the contribution of groundwater animals to estimates of global biodiversity.

13. Effective ecosystem management must include groundwater/riparian ecotones and interstitial metazoans in monitoring and restoration efforts. Evidence suggests that a ’connected ‘; groundwater/riparian system provides natural pollution control, prevents clogging of sediment interstices and maintains high levels of habitat heterogeneity and successional stage diversity. River protection and restoration should maintain or re-establish at least a portion of the natural fluvial dynamics that sustains the ecological integrity of the entire riverine–floodplain–aquifer ecosystem.

Keywords: groundwater/riparian ecotones, hyporheic habitat, epigean, hypogean, interstitial fauna, biodiversity, food webs

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