Nitrate-nitrogen effects on benthic invertebrate communities in streams of the Canterbury Plains
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Science
Aquatic ecosystems are especially vulnerable to human impacts associated with agricultural land-use, which provide multiple stressors altering community composition, important ecosystem functions and human valued properties of freshwaters. However, the increased occurrence of excessive levels of nitrate-nitrogen has raised major concerns about toxicity and stress on aquatic life, especially in regions such as the Canterbury Plains, New Zealand. The aims of this thesis were to identify nitrate-nitrogen effects on stream communities, and additionally provide field data to inform proposed national bottom lines for nutrients in New Zealand streams. A field survey was conducted on 41 small streams on the Canterbury Plains spanning a nitrate-nitrogen gradient (mean 0.4 – 11.3 mg/L). Spot nitrate-nitrogen was collected during and after the field survey to measure temporal variation in stream nitrate-nitrogen concentration for six months. This showed nitrate-nitrogen concentration varied between season and sub-region, where concentrations increased in winter and Ashburton had higher nitrate-nitrogen than Rangiora and Lincoln, respectively. These regimes of nitrate-nitrogen showed similar patterns in mean, median and maximum concentrations. To be confident my spot nitrate-nitrogen provided a true representation of long-term water chemistry, I compared Environment Canterbury 12 monthly data with my six monthly data in a sub-set of 15 sites. This comparison showed similar nitrate-nitrogen patterns and range of values between the two datasets. I then compared 12 common benthic invertebrate biotic metrics with my nitrate-nitrogen data and found none were correlated with this contaminant. For example, the Macroinvertebrate Community Index and quantitative variant (QMCI) derived to measure the response to organic pollution provided inconsistent results when applied to my streams. Nevertheless, gut content stoichiometry of the common mayfly grazer Deleatidium spp. indicated improvement in food quality (lower C:N ratio) with higher nitrate-nitrogen concentrations. These results indicated either nitrate-nitrogen does not alter invertebrate structural metrics across this nitrate-nitrogen gradient, or that these biotic metrics measure community structure aspects not affected by nitrate-nitrogen. I then investigated possible community composition patterns across the nitrate-nitrogen gradient. Unconstrained ordination (on presence/absence data) showed invertebrate communities at my sites were influenced primarily by discharge and shade, with the next most important driver being nitrate-nitrogen. A constrained ordination (on the same data) testing the singular effect of nitrate-nitrogen showed a marginally non-significant change in composition, with higher variability in community composition at higher nitrate-nitrogen concentrations. A further aim of my study was to test the draft nitrate-nitrogen bands proposed by Hickey (2013). These nitrate-nitrogen bands may advise guidelines to protect aquatic organisms as required by the National Policy Statement on Freshwater. Analysis of my invertebrate communities showed differences in composition, particularly at < 1 and > 6.9 mg/L bands. Several predatory caddisfly taxa: Triplectides, Neurochorema and Oeconesus were identified as potential indicator species of communities associated with low nitrate-nitrogen. These findings show that nitrate-nitrogen effects are difficult to detect, and that it is not the main driver of community composition in Canterbury streams. However, nitrate-nitrogen may be an important stressor for sensitive benthic invertebrate communities, as effects were observed on pollution tolerant organisms in this study. Therefore, this research has implications for freshwater ecologists and environmental managers striving to improve the health of streams on the Canterbury Plains.