Aquatic Sciences

, Volume 79, Issue 4, pp 909–923 | Cite as

Functional associations between microalgae, macrophytes and invertebrates distinguish river types

  • Maria João Feio
  • Salomé F. P. Almeida
  • Francisca C. Aguiar
Research Article


Contemporary large-scale river ecology is grounded on the existence of patterns in the distribution of aquatic communities, structured by prevailing abiotic conditions. Here, we investigated the existence of functional consistent associations of traits (i.e., traits appearing consistently together at different sites and the same river type) between different biological elements of the aquatic community, assuming that species traits confer them advantages for certain environmental conditions but also within the aquatic community. If this is true, these trait associations should be consistently found in water bodies with similar characteristics (river types), defining different types of ecosystem functioning. To test this, 79 least-disturbed sites, belonging to five well-defined Portuguese river types and covering the longitudinal river gradient were used: headwaters of semi-arid streams, mountainous streams and northern-Atlantic climate streams, middle reaches and lowland large rivers. For each river type, we analyzed the strongest associations (via the Bray–Curtis coefficient) between diatoms, benthic invertebrates and macrophytes and traits that could be relevant to their interactions (e.g., invertebrate trophic groups, mobility/fixation ability of diatoms, macrophyte affinity to water) against a priori predictions. The strongest associations of traits changed over the river continuum with an increase in their complexity (number of associations) from headwaters to middle reaches and a decrease in lowland large rivers. These changes were not related to total richness, which was similar for all river types and over the continuum (ca. 100 taxa). In the three types of headwaters, there were also clear differences in associations among aquatic elements. The importance of riparian trees in small streams was not as high as expected while instream macrophytes were more relevant than predicted. This study revealed the existence of predictable functional associations that could serve as a basis for the functional assessment of running waters.


Aquatic plants Diatoms Macroinvertebrates Functional assessment Riparian trees Species traits 



We acknowledge the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (Portugal)—FCT, for financial support through the strategic project UID/MAR/04292/2013 granted to MARE and to Centro de Estudos Florestais, Universidade de Lisboa, within UID/AGR/00239/2013; to the MARE-Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre and University of Coimbra; and to the Biology Department and Geobiotec research centre at the University of Aveiro. FCA received funding by the FCT post-doctoral Grant SFRH/BPD/112417/2015.

Supplementary material

27_2017_541_MOESM1_ESM.docx (192 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 191 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.MARE-Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Faculty of Sciences and TechnologyUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal
  2. 2.Department of Biology and GeoBioTec-GeoBioSciences, GeoTechnologies and GeoEngineering Research CentreUniversity of AveiroAveiroPortugal
  3. 3.Forest Research Centre (CEF), School of AgricultureUniversity of LisbonLisboaPortugal
  4. 4.cE3c-Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Changes, Faculty of SciencesUniversity of LisbonLisboaPortugal

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