Publications: Peer-reviewed journal articles (by staff)

Exploring the response of functional indicators of stream ecological integrity to land-use pressure gradients

1 January, 2010

Clapcott JE, Young RG, Goodwin E, Leathwick JR 2010. Exploring the response of functional indicators of stream ecological integrity to land-use pressure gradients. Freshwater Biology 55 (10): 2181-2199


Broad-scale assessment of stream health is often based on correlative relationships between catchment land-use categories and measurements of stream biota or water chemistry. Few studies have attempted to characterise the response curves that describe how measures of ecosystem function change along gradients of catchment land use, or explored how these responses vary at broad spatial scales.

 In autumn 2008, we conducted a survey of 84 streams in three bioregions of New Zealand to assess the sensitivity of functional indicators to three land-use gradients: percentage of native vegetation cover, percentage of impervious cover (IC) and predicted nitrogen (N) concentration. We examined these relationships using general linear models and boosted regression trees to explore monotonic, non-monotonic and potential threshold components of the response curves.

 When viewing the responses to individual land-use gradients, four of five functional indicators were positively correlated with the removal of native vegetation cover and N. In general, weaker and less responsive models were observed for the IC gradient. An analysis of the response to multiple stressors showed delta 15N of primary consumers and gross primary productivity (GPP) to be the most responsive functional indicators to land-use gradients. The multivariate models identified thresholds for change in the relationship between the functional indicators and all three land-use gradients. Apparent thresholds were < 10%IC, between 40 and 80% loss of native vegetation cover and at 0.5 and 3.2 mg L-1 N.

The strength of regression models and the nature of the response curves suggest that measures of ecosystem function exhibit predictable relationships with land use. Furthermore, the responses of functional indicators varied little among three bioregions. This information provides a strong argument for the inclusion of functional indicators in a holistic assessment of stream health.