The independent and interactive effects of fine sediment and flow on benthic invertebrate communities characteristic of small upland streams
SUMMARY 1. Floods are an important mechanism of disturbance operating in streams that can markedly influence the abundance and diversity of benthic fauna. In upland streams many studies cite the scouring effects of fine transported sediments as a potential source of disturbance to the biota during spates, but few studies have sought to test this hypothesis critically. 2. Here we used a series of eight artificial streams to test whether high suspended-sediment concentrations influenced the short-term response of benthic invertebrate fauna to increases in flow. In an experiment designed to simulate a small spate, flow and sediment loads were each manipulated to examine their independent and interactive effects. Benthic invertebrates were sampled before and after the manipulation, and drift samples were taken at regular intervals during the experiment. The experiment was repeated twice, once at the end of winter (June, 1998), and once in summer (February, 1999). 3. Flow increases caused large increases in the number and diversity of drifting animals, and significant declines in the numbers and diversity of organisms found in benthic samples, but these declines were apparently not affected by the addition of fine sediment. The addition of sediment alone had little effect on the fauna. These results were consistent across both experiments. 4. The results suggest that flow increases alone can disturb benthic fauna, and that neither substrate movement nor suspended sediment increases are necessary for floods and spates to disturb the benthic assemblage. However, as argued elsewhere, the effects of flow increases are likely to be contingent upon the presence or absence of local flow refugia, which can allow animals to escape the shear forces that would otherwise remove them from the surface or interstitial areas of the streambed.