Organic sediment pulses impact rivers across multiple levels of ecological organization

Katie L. Aspray, Joseph Holden, Mark E. Ledger, Chris P. Mainstone, Lee E. Brown*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
146 Downloads (Pure)


Sedimentation is a pervasive environmental pressure affecting rivers globally. Headwaters draining catchments rich in organic soils (i.e., peat) are particularly vulnerable to enhanced sedimentation caused by land management and environmental change, yet many of the ecological consequences of peat deposition are poorly understood. We conducted a before-after-control-impact experiment in two rivers draining blanket peatland in Northern England to test the effect of sediment inputs on water quality, macroinvertebrate drift, macroinvertebrate community structure, and ecosystem metabolism. Sediment addition increased concentrations of dissolved organic carbon, total oxidised nitrogen and suspended sediment concentration in rivers, and intensified the total drift of macroinvertebrates particularly at night. By contrast, the abundance and richness of benthic macroinvertebrates were unaffected, except for declines in Coleoptera abundance in one river. The gross primary production of both rivers was strongly suppressed as the benthos was smothered by sediment. Community respiration also declined, albeit by different extents in the two rivers. Our experiment revealed that short-term pulses of organic sediment in rivers can have broad effects on water quality and biota, from influences on the dispersal of individual organisms to the modification of ecosystem processes. Organic sediments therefore warrant further examination, to include longer observation periods and more sites. It is particularly important to clarify the extent to which impacts extend from peatland streams into larger rivers downstream. Such studies are necessary to inform global management efforts to restore the integrity of river ecosystems under a range of water and biodiversity policy mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1855
Issue number6
Early online date31 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 14 Sept 2017


  • drift
  • macroinvertebrate
  • metabolism
  • peat
  • primary production
  • respiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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