1. Accurately assessing the effects of multiple human-caused stressors on freshwater (and other) ecosystems is an essential step in the development of efficient decision support tools for environmental managers. Our objective is to review potentials and limitations of the use of biological traits as indicators (BTIs) of multiple stressor effects on running water (i.e. lotic) ecosystems.
2. Pioneers in ecology provided mechanistic explanations for responses of alternative biological traits to a given stressor and for the action of habitat harshness as a trait filter. These ideas were subsequently integrated in theoretical ecological constructs (e.g. Habitat Templet Concept) that form the basis of the BTI approach.
3. To resolve the effects of multiple stressors on running waters requires multiple traits of a biologically diverse group of organisms such as lotic invertebrates. To meet this goal, however, recently created databases on the biological traits of lotic invertebrates must be expanded and unified.
4. Addressing the technical implementation of the BTI approach, we illustrate that anticipated problems with phylogenetic trait syndromes are seemingly less serious in reality and that presence–absence data of genera and few sample replicates are sufficient for accurate trait descriptions of invertebrate communities.
5. Current trends in politics demand that biomonitoring tools be effective at large scales, i.e. large-scale trait patterns of natural communities (i.e. at reference conditions) should be relatively stable. The trait composition of natural invertebrate communities is relatively stable at the scale of Europe and North America because trait filters of natural lotic habitats act similarly across large biogeographical units.
6. The mechanistic actions of stressors on the biological traits of invertebrates should facilitate a priori predictions, but the complexity of potential trait responses makes such predictions sometimes difficult.
7. To illustrate potentials and limitations of BTIs to identify a given stressor acting exclusively (or primarily), we examine the (i) use of functional feeding groups to indicate the action of various stressors and (ii) trait responses to an indirectly acting stressor (discharge variation) and to a more directly acting stressor (near-bottom flow). If the excessive use of specific traits for the indication of too many different stressors is avoided and a given stressor acts directly on traits as a priori predicted, reliable interpretations of trait responses can be achieved.
8. To illustrate how BTIs can identify individual stressors acting in combination, we examine three cases of multiple stressors: (i) heavy metal pollution in combination with cargo-ship traffic; (ii) eutrophication and fine sediment deposits associated with land use; and (iii) various stressors associated with climate change in combination with salinity. If the number of the assessed traits is sufficiently great and the action of each individual among the multiple stressors is not too weak, multiple traits can potentially resolve the effects of multiple stressors.
9. Thematic implications: if the expansion and unification of existing trait databases can be achieved, the rapidly growing knowledge about biological trait responses of lotic invertebrates to individual and multiple stressors should enable the identification of management priorities focused on: (i) individually acting stressors (manage stressor A at site X prior to stressor B at site Y); (ii) multiple stressors acting in different combinations at different sites (manage stressors A & B at site X prior to stressors C & D at site Y); and (iii) individual stressors acting in combination (manage stressor A prior to stressor B at site X). Thus, the BTI approach has the potential to inaugurate a new era in the biomonitoring of lotic (and other) ecosystems.