Ecological connectivity in braided riverscapes
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Rivers are hierarchical networks that integrate both large and small scale processes within catchments. They are highly influenced by variation in flow and are characterised by strong longitudinal movement of materials. I conducted an extensive literature review that indicated braided rivers lie at the upper end of the river complexity gradient due to the addition of strong lateral and vertical connectivity with their floodplains. The management of these rivers requires an understanding of the connective linkages that drive complexity, however in developed regions few braided river systems remain intact. The large number of relatively pristine braided rivers in New Zealand provided a unique opportunity to study physical and biotic patterns in these large dynamic systems. Initially I examined horizontal connectivity through patterns in regional and local diversity in eleven braided rivers in the North and South islands of New Zealand. Subsequently, the next component of my thesis focused on vertical connectivity through intensive investigations of energy pathways and the recipient spring stream food-webs.
The eleven river survey included sampling of multiple reaches and habitats (main channels, side braids, spring sources, spring streams and ponds) and confirmed the importance of lateral habitats to invertebrate diversity. However, I found that large spatial scales made a greater contribution to diversity than small scales, such that major differences occurred between rivers rather than habitats. This result suggested either a role for catchment-scale factors, such as flow, or biogeographic patterning. Subsequent analysis of the relationships between invertebrate diversity and the physical environment indicated strong regulation by flow variability, but also biogeographic community patterns. Braided rivers are clearly disturbance dominated ecosystems, however the effects of disturbance are manifest in different ways across the riverscape.
The role of vertical hydrological connectivity in linking the different components of the floodplain was investigated by tracing carbon pathways from the terrestrial floodplain to spring-fed streams and their communities. Using δ13C isotope signatures it was possible to show that inorganic carbon in groundwater was derived from terrestrial vegetation and subsequently incorporated into spring stream food-webs. However, the degree to which a stream community uses groundwater as opposed to allochthonous carbon is affected by the successional stage of riparian vegetation, a function of the shifting habitat mosaic that is regulated primarily by flow variation and sediment dynamics. In summary, the structure of braided river ecosystems is regulated primarily at the catchment scale, but connectivity at smaller scales plays an important role in determining ecological structure and function.