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Groundwater influence on alpine stream ecosystems


Lee E. Brown, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds, LS2 9JT, U.K.


1. Spatial and temporal variability of relative snow-melt, glacier-melt and groundwater contributions to streams play important roles in shaping alpine freshwater ecosystems. Although meltwater (particularly glacier-fed) streams have received much attention in recent years, the influence of groundwater on alpine freshwater ecosystems remains poorly understood.

2. This study tested the hypotheses that increased groundwater contributions to meltwater-dominated alpine streams would yield increases in water temperature, channel stability, electrical conductivity and particulate organic matter (POM) and decreases in suspended sediment concentration (SSC). These more favourable habitat conditions were hypothesised to result in increased macroinvertebrate abundance and diversity.

3. Groundwater contributions, physicochemical habitat variables and benthic macroinvertebrates were sampled throughout the 2002 and 2003 summer-melt seasons in three streams in the French Pyrénées.

4. Increased groundwater contributions were significantly correlated with higher discharge, water temperature, electrical conductivity, POM and channel stability, but lower SSC.

5. Macroinvertebrate total abundance, taxonomic richness, number of Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera genera, and per cent Plecoptera all increased significantly with greater groundwater contributions to streamflow. However, beta diversity and Trichoptera relative abundance decreased.

6. Abundance of most macroinvertebrate taxa was highest under groundwater-dominated conditions but a gradient of optimum groundwater preferences was evident across all taxa. Some taxa were found only where groundwater contributions were low (i.e. in predominantly meltwater-fed streams).

7. This study provides evidence that water source, physicochemical habitat and stream biota are strongly linked. Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach is necessary for future studies aiming to develop conservation strategies or predict the response of alpine river ecosystems to global climate change.