1. Methods are needed to relate changing river flows to ecological response, particularly those which do not require collection of extensive new data for river segments that lack historical data. Using time-series of river biomonitoring data from wadeable lowland streams in Denmark and the East Midlands of the U.K., we describe how local-scale habitat features (indexed through River Habitat Survey or Danish Habitat Quality Survey) and changing river flow (discharge) influence the response of a macroinvertebrate community index. The approach has broad applicability in developing regional flow-ecological response models.
2. We analysed the data using multilevel linear regression, combining sample-level and site-level characteristics as predictors. We focused on the potential for common responses across sites; hence for each sample, the macroinvertebrate community was summarised into an index, Lotic Invertebrate index for Flow Evaluation (LIFE), an average of abundance-weighted flow groups which indicate the microhabitat preferences of each taxon for higher velocities and clean gravel/cobble substrata or slow/still velocities and finer substrata.
3. For the Danish fauna, the LIFE score responded to three predictors in an additive manner: high flows in the preceding 4 months (positive), substratum composition and whether the channel was meandering or straight. The East Midlands fauna responded to three predictors: high and low flows in the preceding 6 months (positive) and the degree of resectioning of the channel (negative). In both cases, LIFE responded negatively to features associated with historical channel modification. We suggest that there are several mechanisms for these relationships, including the narrower tolerances of taxa preferring high velocity habitat; these taxa are also continually recovering from extreme flow events over an inter-annual timescale.
4. At the East Midlands sites, there was an interaction between degree of resectioning and antecedent low flow. At sites with a greater extent of resectioning, the LIFE-discharge relationship was also steeper than at less modified sites. Consideration of the underlying data suggests that there are two mechanisms for this response. Firstly, in less modified sites, refugia are present during low flows for taxa preferring higher velocities such as riffle beetles, caseless caddis, mayflies and Gammarus pulex. Secondly, high flows are associated with decreasing abundances of taxa such as molluscs, flatworms and leeches at more resectioned sites, but with stable or increasing abundances at less modified sites.
5. The LIFE index responded to both antecedent flow and habitat modification in two separate data sets from lowland wadeable streams. This is the first time that the combined importance of these two factors has been demonstrated using routine invertebrate biomonitoring data. These results complement other site-specific studies that have shown how channel structure interacts with flow to create physical habitat, and should assist future work aiming to define flow-habitat-biota relationships.
6. The derived models may be used to help guide environmental flow allocations, for example by predicting the slope of response of LIFE score to flow for comparable new locations which lack biological data.