Biological quality metrics: their variability and appropriate scale for assessing streams

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Abstract

The concept of spatial scale is at the research frontier in ecology, and although focus has been placed on trying to determine the role of spatial scale in structuring communities, there still is a further need to standardize which organism groups are to be used at which scale and under which circumstances in environmental assessment. This paper contributes to the understanding of the variability at different spatial scales (reach, stream, river basin) of metrics characterizing communities of different biological quality elements (macrophytes, fishes, macroinvertebrates and benthic diatoms) as defined by the Water Framework Directive. For this purpose, high-quality reaches from medium-sized lowland streams of Latvia, Ecoregion 15 (Baltic) were sampled using a nested hierarchical sampling design: (river basin → stream → reach). The variability of metrics within the different groups of biological quality elements confirmed that large-bodied organisms (macrophytes and fish) were less variable than small-bodied organisms (macroinvertebrates and benthic diatoms) at reach, stream and river basin scales. Single metrics of biological quality elements had the largest variation at the reach scale compared with stream and basin scales. There were no significant correlations between biodiversity indices of the different organism groups. The correlation between diversity indices (Shannon's and Simpson's) of the biological quality elements (macrophytes, fish, benthic macroinvertebrates and benthic diatoms) and a number of measured environmental variables varied among the different organism groups. Relationships between diversity indices and environmental factors were established for all groups of biological quality elements. Our results showed that metrics of macrophytes and fish could be used for assessing ecological quality at the river basin scale, whereas metrics of macroinvertebrates and benthic diatoms were most appropriate at a smaller scale.

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