Detection of ecological change using multiple organism groups: metrics and uncertainty

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A number of biological approaches are commonly used to assess the ecological integrity of stream ecosystems. Recently, it is becoming increasingly common to use multiple organism groups in bioassessment. Advocates of the multiple organism approach argue that the use of different organism groups should strengthen inference-based models and ultimately result in lower assessment error, while opponents argue that organism groups often respond similarly to stress implying a high degree of redundancy. Using fish, macroinvertebrate, macrophyte and benthic diatom data, site-specific parameters (e.g., water chemistry and substratum) and catchment variables from European mountain (n = 77) and lowland (n = 85) streams we evaluated the discriminatory power and uncertainty associated with the use of a number of biological metrics commonly used in stream assessment. The primary environmental gradient for both streams types was land use and nutrient enrichment. Secondary and tertiary gradients were related to habitat quality or alterations in hydromorphology. Benthic diatom and macroinvertebrate metrics showed high discriminatory power (R2 values often >0.50) and low error (<30%) with the primary (nutrient) gradient, while both fish and macrophyte metrics performed relatively poorly. Conversely, both fish and macrophyte metrics showed higher response (high coefficients of determination) than either benthic diatom or macroinvertebrate metrics to the second (e.g., alteration in habitat/hydromorphology) gradient. However, the discriminatory power and error associated with individual metrics varied markedly, indicating that caution should be exercised when selecting the ‘best' organism group or metric to monitor stress.

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