Parallels and contrasts in the effects of drought on stream macroinvertebrate assemblages


Andrew J. Boulton, Ecosystem Management, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, 2351, Australia. E-mail:


  • 1It is axiomatic that unusually long dry periods (droughts) adversely affect aquatic biota. Recovery after drought is rapid by macroinvertebrates that possess strategies to survive drying or are highly mobile but other taxa take longer to recolonise depending on the timing, intensity, and duration of the dry phase.
  • 2Although drought acts as a sustained ‘ramp’ disturbance, impacts may be disproportionately severe when certain critical thresholds are exceeded. For example, ecological changes may be gradual while a riffle dries but cessation of flow causes abrupt loss of a specific habitat, alteration of physicochemical conditions in pools downstream, and fragmentation of the river ecosystem. Many ecological responses to drought within these habitats apparently depend on the timing and rapidity of hydrological transitions across these thresholds, exhibiting a ‘stepped’ response alternating between gradual change while a threshold is approached followed by a swift transition when a habitat disappears or is fragmented.
  • 3In two Australian intermittent streams, drought conditions eliminated or decimated several groups of macroinvertebrates, including atyid shrimps, stoneflies and free-living caddisflies. These taxa persisted during the early stages of the drought but did not recruit successfully the following year, despite a return to higher-than-baseflow conditions. This ‘lag effect’ in response to drought emphasises the value of long-term survey data. Although changes in faunal composition were inconsistent among sites, marked shifts in taxa richness, abundance and trophic organisation after the riffle habitat dried provide evidence for a stepped response.
  • 4Responses by macroinvertebrate assemblages to droughts of differing severity in English chalk streams were variable. The prolonged 1988–92 drought had a greater impact than shorter droughts in the early 1970s but recovery over the next 3 years was swift. Effects of the 1995 summer drought were buffered by sustained groundwater discharge from the previous winter. These droughts tended to reduce available riverine habitats, especially via siltation, but few taxa were eliminated because they could recolonise from perennial sections of the chalk streams.
  • 5In the contrasting environments of the intermittent streams studied in England and Australia, there are parallels in the rapid rates of recolonisation. However, recruitment by taxa that lack desiccation-resistant stages or have limited mobility is delayed. Currently, long-term data on these systems may be insufficient to indicate persistent effects of droughts or predict the impacts of excessive surface or groundwater abstraction or the increased frequency and duration of droughts expected with global climate change.