1. European lowland streams have experienced increased perturbation and eutrophication during the past 100 years. We use archive information from 27 Danish stream sites around 1896 and new data from 208 stream sites in 1996 to evaluate the accompanying changes in stream vegetation. Among the stream sites, 13 were both studied in 1896 and 1996.
2. The species richness of submerged plants has declined profoundly over the 100-year period, particularly among the large group of Potamogeton species. This is evident both from the direct comparison of the 13 stream reaches included in both studies, and from the general comparison of all stream reaches included in the two studies.
3. The Potamogeton vegetation has become less diverse, and is now dominated by species resistant to frequent disturbance through a high dispersal capacity. Potamogeton species, adapted to eutrophic conditions, have also increased relative to species more typical of oligotrophic conditions over this period. The dominant submerged species in the contemporary stream vegetation generally show a high capacity for dispersal and regrowth of detached shoots.
4. The decline of species richness in Danish streams can be partly explained by a decline in the species richness in lakes in the stream system. The rich vegetation observed downstream of lakes in the past has mostly disappeared due to loss of the vegetation in the now eutrophic lakes and increasing turbidity downstream.
5. The overall decline in richness, and the directional change in dominance patterns among stream species, can thus be explained by the loss of suitable habitats and the strong anthropogenic impacts, which have driven several European aquatic species close to extinction.
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