1. Human use of land and water resources modifies many streamflow characteristics, which can have significant ecological consequences. Streamflow and invertebrate data collected at 111 sites in the western U.S.A. were analysed to identify streamflow characteristics (magnitude, frequency, duration, timing and variation) that are probably to limit characteristics of benthic invertebrate assemblages (abundance, richness, diversity and evenness, functional feeding groups and individual taxa) and, thus, would be important for freshwater conservation and restoration. Our analysis investigated multiple metrics for each biological and hydrological characteristic, but focuses on 14 invertebrate metrics and 13 streamflow metrics representing the key associations between streamflow and invertebrates.
2. Streamflow is only one of many environmental and biotic factors that influence the characteristics of invertebrate assemblages. Although the central tendency of invertebrate assemblage characteristics may not respond to any one factor across a large region like the western U.S.A., we postulate that streamflow may limit some invertebrates. To assess streamflow characteristics as limiting factors on invertebrate assemblages, we developed a nonparametric screening procedure to identify upper (ceilings) or lower (floors) limits on invertebrate metrics associated with streamflow metrics. Ceilings and floors for selected metrics were then quantified using quantile regression.
3. Invertebrate assemblages had limits associated with all streamflow characteristics that we analysed. Metrics of streamflow variation at daily to inter-annual scales were among the most common characteristics associated with limits on invertebrate assemblages. Baseflow recession, daily variation and monthly variation, in streamflow were associated with the largest number of invertebrate metrics. Since changes in streamflow variation are often a consequence of hydrologic alteration, they may serve as useful indicators of ecologically significant changes in streamflow and as benchmarks for managing streamflow for ecological objectives.
4. Relative abundance of Plecoptera, richness of non-insect taxa and relative abundance of intolerant taxa were associated with multiple streamflow metrics. Metrics of sensitive taxa (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera), and intolerant taxa generally had ceilings associated with flow metrics while metrics of tolerant taxa, non-insects, dominance and chironomids generally had floors. Broader characteristics of invertebrate assemblages such as abundance and richness had fewer limits, but these limits were nonetheless associated with a broad range of streamflow characteristics.