1. Current budgets for environmental management are high, tend to increase, and are used to support policy and legislation which is standardized for large geographic units. Therefore, the search for tools to monitor the effects of this investment is a major issue in applied ecology. Ideally, such a biomonitoring tool should: (1) be as general as possible with respect to its geographic application; (2) be as specific as possible by separating different types of human impact on a given ecosystem; (3) reliably indicate changes in human impact of a particular type; and (4) be derived from a sound theoretical concept in ecology.
2. We developed an approach to biomonitoring which matches these ‘ideal’ characteristics by focusing on numerous, general biological species traits (e.g. size, number of descendants per reproductive cycle, parental care, mobility) and on the habitat templet concept, which relates trends in these general species traits to disturbance patterns. Using the French Rhône River and benthic macroinvertebrates as an example, we have used the data to demonstrate a general framework and the potential of our approach rather than to produce a ready-made tool. Our data covered a large river and its major tributaries, which has a catchment that crosses ecoregions, and known gradients and discontinuities in human impact.
3. We applied multivariate analyses to evaluate how the distribution of species traits in invertebrate communities could discriminate environmental differences along the Rhône in comparison to traditionally used approaches (e.g. community structure, based on species abundances, or ecological species traits, such as velocity preferences and pollution tolerance). Invertebrate community structure expressed in terms either of the abundance or the traits of species reliably indicated differences in overall human impact. The community structure based on biological traits was less confounded by natural spatial gradients and reliably indicated human impact, while community structure based on ecological traits was the most confounded by natural spatial gradients and was the poorest indicator of human impact. Community structure based on species abundances was an intermediate indicator of human impact.
4. These results indicate that a revision of biomonitoring approaches which have been based on a single aspect of the biological responses may be warranted. The biological traits of species could separate the different types of human impact. Therefore, the use of these traits in biomonitoring could improve existing multi-metric approaches. Future research has to show if the general applicability of species traits allows the development of a unique biomonitoring tool for running waters of the European Union, for running waters in temperate climates on several continents, for freshwater, marine and terrestrial systems, and/or for global biodiversity assessment.