Macrophyte loss drives decadal change in benthic invertebrates in peatland drainage ditches



  1. Agricultural peatlands and their associated drainage systems are often highly managed and exposed to anthropogenic pressures, such as eutrophication and stable water tables, maintained via drainage during periods of high rainfall and inlet of, alkaline-rich, waters during dry periods. These pressures promote peat degradation, resulting in the accumulation of fine-degraded peat particles that dramatically alter aquatic habitats by smothering surfaces and decreasing water quality. Consequential effects on benthic communities are expected but have not been investigated so far.
  2. We hypothesised that peat degradation can lead to the decline in submerged macrophytes, which are of critical importance to sustaining biodiversity of benthic invertebrate communities. To investigate this, we analysed decadal (1985–2007) changes in benthic species richness in 29 peat ditches in the Netherlands and, to determine patterns of macroinvertebrate habitat occupancy, carried out a complementary field experiment with submerged artificial macrophytes, natural sediments and emergent bank vegetation.
  3. Results from long-term monitoring indicate that chemical conditions in agricultural peat ditches have improved slightly over the last decades; however, there has been a simultaneous decline in benthic invertebrate species richness and densities corresponding to a decline in the numbers of submerged macrophytes. The apparent dependence of macroinvertebrates on macrophytes was reinforced by our field experiment which revealed that invertebrate density was highest in submerged artificial plants, while invertebrate species richness was highest in natural emergent vegetation. Conversely, degraded peat sediments supported extremely few invertebrates.
  4. Our results clearly illustrate the strong influence of submerged macrophyte loss on macroinvertebrate assemblages in peatland waters. Furthermore, this suggests that improvements in water quality alone will not benefit invertebrates in the absence of suitable vegetative habitats.