Developing linkages between species traits and multiscaled environmental variation to explore vulnerability of stream benthic communities to climate change

LeRoy POFF, Pyne Matthew, B.P. Bledsoe, C.O. Cuhaciyan, Daren Carlisle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

97 Citations (Scopus)


Forecasting responses of benthic community structure and function to anthropogenic climate change is an emerging scientific challenge. Characterizing benthic species by biological attributes (traits) that are responsive to temperature and streamflow conditions can support a mechanistic approach for assessing the potential ecological responses to climate change. However, nonclimatic environmental factors also structure benthic communities and may mitigate transient climatic conditions, and these must be considered in evaluating potential impacts of climate change. Here we used macroinvertebrate and environmental data for 279 reference-quality sites spanning 12 states in the western US. For each sampling location, we described 45 environmental variables that spanned reach to catchment scales and that represented contemporary climate drivers, hydrologic metrics, and nonclimatic habitat features, as well as purely spatial metrics. We described benthic community composition at each site in terms of 7 species traits, including those considered sensitive to temperature increases and streamflow changes. All combined environmental variables explained 67% of the total trait variation across the sites, and catchment-scale climatic and hydrologic variables independently accounted for 19%. Sites were clustered into 3 community types based on trait composition, and a classification-tree analysis confirmed that climatic and hydrologic variables were important in partitioning these groups. Sensitivity of benthic communities to projected climate change was assessed by quantifying the proportion of taxa at sites having the traits of either cold stenothermy or obligate rheophily. Regression-tree analysis showed that temperature and hydrologic variables mostly accounted for the differences in proportion of sensitivity traits across the sites. We examined the vulnerability of sites to climate change by superimposing regionalscale projections of late-21st-century temperature and runoff change on the spatial distribution of temperature- and runoff-sensitive assemblages. Sites with high proportions of cold stenotherms and obligate rheophiles occur throughout the western US, but the degree of temperature and runoff change is projected to be greatest for reference sites in the Upper Colorado River and Great Basin. Thus, our results suggest that traits-based sensitivity coupled with intraregional variation in projected changes in temperature and runoff will cause reference sites in the western US to be differentially vulnerable to future climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1441-1458
JournalJournal of the North American Benthological Society
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2010


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