Get access

Fluvial landscape ecology: addressing uniqueness within the river discontinuum


Geoffrey C. Poole Eco-metrics, Inc., 4051 Wildflower Lane, Tucker, GA 30084, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. As rivers and streams are patchy and strongly hierarchical systems, a hierarchical patch dynamics perspective can be used as a framework for visualising interactions between structure and function in fluvial landscapes. The perspective is useful for addressing fundamental attributes of lotic ecosystems, such as heterogeneity, hierarchy, directionality and process feedback occurring across spatial scales and for illustrating spatio-temporal linkages between disparate concepts in lotic system ecology such as the River Continuum Concept, the Serial Discontinuity Concept, the Flood Pulse Concept and the Hyporheic Corridor Concept.

2. At coarse spatial scales, the hierarchical patch dynamics perspective describes each river network as a unique, patchy discontinuum from headwaters to mouth. The discontinuum is comprised of a longitudinal series of alternating stream segments with different geomorphological structures. Each confluence in the steam network further punctuates the discontinuum because the sudden change in stream characteristics can create a `gap' in the expected pattern of downstream transitions. The discontinuum view recognises general trends in habitat characteristics along the longitudinal profile, but creates a framework for studying and understanding the ecological importance of each stream's individual pattern of habitat transitions along longitudinal, lateral or vertical vectors at any scale.

3. Object-oriented modelling and programming techniques provide a means for developing robust, quantitative simulation models that describe the dynamic structure of patch hierarchies. Such models can simulate how the structure and function of lotic ecosystems are influenced by the landscape context of the system (the ecological conditions within which the system is set) and the metastructure (structural characteristics and juxtaposition) of finer-scale patches comprising the system.

4. A simple object-oriented, multiscale, discontinuum model of solute transformation and biological response along a stream channel illustrates how changing the branching pattern of a stream and the arrangement of its component patches along the downstream profile will result in substantial changes in predicted patterns of solute concentration and biotic community structure.

5. The importance of context, structure, and metastructure in determining lotic ecosystem function serves to underscore Hynes' (1975) concept that `every stream is likely to be individual.' Advancing the discipline of fluvial landscape ecology provides an excellent opportunity to develop general concepts and tools that address the individual character of each stream network and integrate the concept of `uniqueness within the river discontinuum' into our ecological understanding of rivers and streams.