Habitat and Hydrological Variability in Sub-Tropical Upland Streams in South-East Queensland
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Headwater streams are extremely vulnerable to the consequences of land-use change as they are tightly coupled with the surrounding landscape. Understanding the natural processes that influence the structure and function of these ecosystems will improve our understanding of how land-use change affects them. Benthic substratum habitat was investigated in a sub-tropical headwater stream by quantifying temporal change to sediment texture of surface sediments (less than 10cm), over four years. Hydrological characteristics were also surveyed in detail, as hydrological regime is a primary determinant of sediment transportation. Additionally, measures of hydro-geological features - hydraulic conductivity and groundwater depth were made in order to explore features of sediment habitat that extend beyond the sediment-water interface. Whilst the typical discharge pattern was one of intermittent base flows and infrequent, yet extreme flood events associated with monsoonal rain patterns, the study period also encompassed a drought and a one in hundred year flood. Rainfall and discharge did not necessarily reflect the actual conditions in the stream. Surface waters were persistent long after discharge ceased. On several occasions the stream bed was completely dry. Shallow groundwater was present at variable depths throughout the study period, being absent only at the height of the drought. The sediments were mainly gravels, sand and clay. Changes in sediment composition were observed for fine particulates (size categories less than 2mm). The grain size change in the finer sediment fractions was marked over time, although bedload movement was limited to a single high discharge event. In response to a low discharge regimen (drought), sediments characteristically showed non-normal distributions and were dominated by finer materials. High-energy discharge regimes (flood) were characterised by coarsening of sands and a diminished clay fraction. Particulate organic matter from sediments showed trends of build-up and decline with the high and low discharge regimes, respectively. Benthic habitats were described according to prevailing hydro-geological parameters. Faunas from sediment substratum samples were associated with identified habitat categories. The fauna reflected the habitat variability in terms of hydrological disturbance of the substratum structure and intermittency of discharge. An applied multivariate procedure was used to correlate temporally changing environmental parameters and faunal abundance data. Faunas were correlated with a group of variables dominated by either discharge variables or sediment textural parameters. Sediment characteristics that affect substratum quality and substratum preference at the micro-scale were investigated via hypotheses testing. A model of carbon loss was used to determine how long particulate organic matter could potentially sustain microbial activity under experimental conditions. An estimate of up to 200 days was determined from this laboratory experiment. Secondly, enriched carbon isotopes were used in a field-based experiment to establish a link between sediments and macrofauna. Enrichment via organic sediments was found for various detritivorous and carnivorous taxa. In the ‘third’ experiment, artificial treatments were applied to elucidate substratum preference. Fauna was offered the choice of variable quantities of clay and/or quality of organic matter. There were no significant preferences found for the different substratum treatments, although further investigation is needed and a different outcome from this method may be achieved under more benign field conditions than those encountered during this experiment. Finally, the study was set within a context of the primary features of scale. Climate and hydrological features, including linkages with the alluvial aquifer and terrestrial ecosystem, and their potential to change within ‘ecological time’ are perceived as critical to understanding the role of benthic sediment substratum.
Thesis (PhD Doctorate)
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Australian School of Environmental Studies
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