• geographical information system;
  • land use;
  • macroinvertebrates;
  • riparian corridor;
  • temperature

1. The structure of lotic macroinvertebrate communities may be strongly influenced by land-use practices within catchments. However, the relative magnitude of influence on the benthos may depend upon the spatial arrangement of different land uses in the catchment.

2. We examined the influence of land-cover patterns on in-stream physico-chemical features and macroinvertebrate assemblages in nine southern Appalachian headwater basins characterized by a mixture of land-use practices. Using a geographical information system (GIS)/remote sensing approach, we quantified land-cover at five spatial scales; the entire catchment, the riparian corridor, and three riparian ‘sub-corridors’ extending 200, 1000 and 2000 m upstream of sampling reaches.

3. Stream water chemistry was generally related to features at the catchment scale. Conversely, stream temperature and substratum characteristics were strongly influenced by land-cover patterns at the riparian corridor and sub-corridor scales.

4. Macroinvertebrate assemblage structure was quantified using the slope of rank-abundance plots, and further described using diversity and evenness indices. Taxon richness ranged from 24 to 54 among sites, and the analysis of rank-abundance curves defined three distinct groups with high, medium and low diversity. In general, other macroinvertebrate indices were in accord with rank-abundance groups, with richness and evenness decreasing among sites with maximum stream temperature.

5. Macroinvertebrate indices were most closely related to land-cover patterns evaluated at the 200 m sub-corridor scale, suggesting that local, streamside development effectively alters assemblage structure.

6. Results suggest that differences in macroinvertebrate assemblage structure can be explained by land-cover patterns when appropriate spatial scales are employed. In addition, the influence of riparian forest patches on in-stream habitat features (e.g. the thermal regime) may be critical to the distribution of many taxa in headwater streams draining catchments with mixed land-use practices.