1. Species traits have been frequently used in ecological studies in an attempt to develop a general ecological framework linking biological communities to habitat pressures. The trait approach offers a mechanistic alternative to traditional taxonomy-based descriptors. This review focuses on research employing traits as biomonitoring tools for freshwater ecosystems, although the lessons learned have wider application in the assessment of other ecosystem types.
2. We review the support from ecological theory to employ species traits for biomonitoring purposes (e.g. the habitat templet concept, landscape filtering hypothesis), and the subsequent studies that test the hypotheses arising from these theories, and apply this knowledge under real freshwater biomonitoring scenarios. We also include studies that deal with more specific issues such as trait trade-offs and trait syndromes.
3. We highlight the functional trait approach as one of the most promising tools emerging for biomonitoring freshwater ecosystems. Several technical issues are addressed and solutions are proposed. We discuss the need for: a broader unified trait biomonitoring tool; a more accurate understanding of the natural variation of community patterns of trait expression; approaches to diminish the effects of trait trade-offs and trait syndromes; additional life history and ecological requirement studies; and the detection of specific impacts under multiple stressor scenarios.
4. Synthesis and applications. This review provides biologists with the conceptual underpinning for the use of species traits as community descriptors and for freshwater biomonitoring and management. We expect that the functional trait approach will ultimately improve communication to managers and legislators of the importance of protecting freshwater ecosystem functions.