Streambed landscapes: Evidence that stream invertebrates respond to the type and spatial arrangement of patches

Margaret A. Palmer, Christopher M. Swan, Karen Nelson, Pamela Silver, Rachel Alvestad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

159 Scopus citations


The availability and spatial arrangement of habitat patches are known to strongly influence fauna in terrestrial ecosystems. The importance of patch arrangement is not well-studied within running-water systems where flow-induced movements of patches and of fauna could decouple habitat characteristics and faunal habitat preferences. Using small, stream-dwelling invertebrates, we asked if fauna in such systems can distinguish among patch types and if patch arrangement at their landscape scale (i.e., within a streambed across which they move and forage) can be linked to faunal abundance. We quantified the spatial distribution of sand and leaf patches at multiple sites on a streambed at regular intervals over a 1 1/2 yr period, estimated faunal abundance in the two patch types, and experimentally determined if faunal colonization varied among leaf patches that were similar structurally but differed in their potential microbial food resources. We show that despite their small size and limited swimming abilities, these stream invertebrates did respond to patch type, that specific characteristics of an individual patch influenced faunal colonization, and that the spatial arrangement of patches on the streambed was linked to field abundances. Larval chironomids and adult copepods were more abundant in leaves than in sand and preferentially colonized leaf patches made with rapidly decomposing leaves that harbored higher microbial (bacteria and fungi) abundances over leaf patches with more refractory leaves and lower microbial abundances. Further, statistical models that included spatially-explicit data on patch arrangement (e.g., patch contagion, distance between patches) explained significantly more variation in faunal abundance, than models that included only nonspatial information (e.g., date, time since last flood). Despite the fact that these fauna live in a highly dynamic environment with variable flow rates during the year, unstable patch configurations, and seasonal changes in total abundance, our findings suggest a need for aquatic ecologists to test the hypothesis that small-scale landscape attributes within streams (e.g., leaf patch aggregation) may be important to faunal dynamics. If patch aggregation has negative consequences for stream biota, streambed 'landscapes' may be fundamentally different from many terrestrial landscapes due to the inherent connectivity provided by the water and the over-riding importance of patch edges. Regardless of these differences, our findings suggest that the spatial configuration of patches in a landscape may have consequences for fauna even in highly dynamic systems, in which patches move and fauna periodically experience high levels of passive dispersal.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)563-576
Number of pages14
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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