1. Benthic invertebrates were sampled over a matrix of about eighty combinations of mean velocity (10–150cms−1) and depth (10–150cm) in two rivers that differed in substrate size variability. Vertical velocity profiles were measured at each sample site and substratum roughness was measured and estimated from percentage cover by stone size classes. The influence of depth on periphyton biomass was also measured.

2. The hydraulic and substrate data were used to investigate the correlations between conventional (mean velocity, depth, substrate size) and complex hydraulic variables (Froude number, shear velocity, and water column and boundary Reynolds number) that were either calculated from direct measurements or inferred from mean velocity, depth, kinematic viscosity and substrate roughness. The ecological relevance of these hydraulic variables was investigated by comparing their degree of correlation with invertebrate densities and community metrics.

3. The invertebrate variables had similar correlations with mean velocity and the complex near-bed hydraulic variables in the river with uniform cobble substrates. In the river with diverse substrates, however, average correlations with Froude number, and inferred shear velocity and boundary Reynolds number were 25–45% higher than with velocity. Of all the individual hydraulic parameters, the boundary Reynolds number, calculated from simple measures, was most strongly correlated with benthic invertebrate distributions and taxa richness. However, invertebrate distributions were more strongly correlated with predictions of multiple regression models, incorporating substrate size, depth and mean velocity, than with any single hydraulic variable.

4. Hydraulic influences on food availability and oxygen concentration in the benthos are likely mechanisms affecting the hydraulic preferences of several taxa. Lower periphyton biomass with depth, partly attributable to light attenuation, appeared to have a non-hydraulic influence on a collector-browser species.