Response of instream animal communities to a short-term extreme event and to longer-term cumulative impacts in a strategic water resource area, South Africa

16 May 2016

Disturbance plays an integral part in generating heterogeneity required for ecosystem persistence, but the increased amplitude and duration of disturbances linked to drivers of global change could result in ecosystem shifts or collapse. Biomonitoring over time provides insights into trajectories of ecosystem change. The responses of two instream animal taxa to two contrasting disturbance events, a major flood event and the long-term cumulative effects of land-use changes, were assessed in 1999–2012 by quantifying variation and change in abundance of functional groups based on flow rate sensitivity, water quality and metrics of ecological condition. All metrics recovered to pre-flood conditions within seven months after the flood event. Similarly, cumulative impacts of land use effected significant decreases in some but not all metrics. Indices that did not change, including SASS total score and ASPT, were the result of insufficient consideration of the decrease in the abundance of sensitive taxa specifically, and the abundance of all taxa in general. The decrease in abundance of sensitive taxa could signal imminent collapse in certain metrics. Evidence is also provided for a shift in the structure of fish assemblages linked to the decrease and loss of taxa sensitive to ecosystem degradation caused by the longer-term impacts of land-use change.