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The impact of a catastrophic storm event on benthic macroinvertebrate communities in upland headwater streams and potential implications for ecological diversity and assessment of ecological status
2012-07-24, Feeley, Hugh B., Davis, Stephen, Bruen, Michael, Blacklocke, Sean, Kelly-Quinn, Mary
Upland headwater streams are dynamic systems, responding rapidly to changes in climatic conditions. This study examined the effects of a catastrophic rainfall event, that occured on 24 October 2011 on the east coast of Ireland, on the macroinvertebrate community composition and structure of four headwater streams in the river Liffey catchment located in the Wicklow Mountains. The ecological status before and after the storm were also evaluated. The water level and pH of each stream were recorded using continuous monitoring equipment, while rainfall data for the study period were sourced from a local weather station. Benthic macroinvertebrates were investigated before and after the storm event using Surber sampling. Results showed rapid and large increases in water level and significant declines in stream pH in response to intensive rainfall during the storm. The high water levels also caused major physical damage and abrasion in all four streams, that significantly altered instream habitats. The storm event induced significant losses to the richness and/or density of most taxonomic groups, with the exception of the Plecoptera. Furthermore, the overall community composition and structure changed significantly, most likely as a result of physical disturbance, given the relative persistence of acid-sensitive taxa and the relatively short period of harsh acidic conditions (<5 pH). Interestingly however, the ecological status of each of the four study sites, tested using Stream Risk Score (SSRS), Biological Monitoring Working Party (BMWP) and the Average Score Per Taxon (ASPT) indices, was unaltered by the loss in richness and densities. This was likely a result of the maintenance of plecopteran richness and the absence of organic pollution, thus highlighting the need to develop appropriate indices to assess the ecological status of streams and rivers affected by physical disturbance caused by large storm events. Ultimately, catastrophic storm events in upland headwater streams have potentially major implications for the maintenance of regional macroinvertebrate diversity within affected regions.