Aquatic Sciences

, 81:25 | Cite as

Floating matter: a neglected component of the ecological integrity of rivers

  • O. ShumilovaEmail author
  • K. Tockner
  • A. M. Gurnell
  • S. D. Langhans
  • M. Righetti
  • A. Lucía
  • C. Zarfl


Floating matter (FM) is a pivotal, albeit neglected, element along river corridors contributing to their ecological integrity. FM consists of particulate matter of natural (e.g. wood, branches, leaves, seeds) and anthropogenic (e.g. plastic, human waste) origin as well as of organisms that, due to its properties, is able to float on the water surface. In this paper, we provide a comprehensive overview of the FM cycle and the fundamental environmental functions FM provides along rivers. Indeed, FM serves as an important geomorphological agent, a dispersal vector for animals and plant propagules, a habitat, a resource, and a biogeochemical component. Furthermore, we collected data on the amount of FM accumulating at dams and in reservoirs, and related it to key characteristics of the respective catchments. River fragmentation truncates the natural dynamics of FM through its extraction at damming structures, alteration in the flow regime, and low morphological complexity, which may decrease FM retention. Finally, we identify key knowledge gaps in relation to the role FM plays in supporting river integrity, and briefly discuss FM management strategies.


Geomorphological agent Dispersal vector Resource function Habitat Fragmentation Catchment management 



This work has been carried out within the SMART Joint Doctorate Programme ‘Science for the MAnagement of Rivers and their Tidal systems’, funded by the Erasmus Mundus programme of the European Union ( We also acknowledge financial support through the Excellence Initiative at the University of Tübingen, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the German Research Foundation (DFG). OS is thankful for a partial support from IGB equal opportunity fund for young female scientists and DFG (SU 405/10-1). SDL has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant agreement no. 748625. We are thankful to Pablo Streich for collecting spatial data on the characteristics of the catchments analysed in this study. We thank two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped to improve the manuscript.


Coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM)

Particulate organic matter larger than 1 mm in diameter with a size range spanning from seeds to entire trees (Fisher and Likens 1973; Turowski et al. 2013)

Floating mats

Buoyant accumulations that include living plant biomass, dead organic material and mineral sediments held together by rhizomes and roots secured by attachment to soils (Azza et al. 2006)

Floating matter (FM)

particulate matter of natural and anthropogenic origin (wood, branches, leaves, seeds, waste) that, due to its properties, is able to float on the water surface

Free floating macrophytes

plants that grow unattached within or upon the water layer (Hasan and Chakrabarti 2009)

Large wood

Pieces of wood larger than 1 m in length and more than 0.1 m in diameter (Montgomery et al. 2003)


Items of natural and anhropogenic origin > 2 cm in size (Suaria and Aliani 2014)


Organisms associated with the air–water interface in aquatic habitats, including small vascular plants and inactive life stages of other organisms (e.g., seeds, spores) (Marshall and Gladyshev 2009)

Small wood

Pieces of wood with a diameter 0.05–0.1 m (Lester et al. 2009)

Surface biofilms

Complex of organic compounds and microorganisms that aggregate at the water–air interface and extend a few micrometers (µm) from the surface into the bulk water (Wotton and Preston 2005)


Organic matter washed onto shores (Harris et al. 2014)

Supplementary material

27_2019_619_MOESM1_ESM.docx (87 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 88 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.BerlinGermany
  2. 2.Institute of BiologyFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  3. 3.Department of Civil, Environmental and Mechanical EngineeringTrento UniversityTrentoItaly
  4. 4.School of GeographyQueen Mary University of LondonLondonUK
  5. 5.Center for Applied GeosciencesEberhard Karls Universität TübingenTübingenGermany
  6. 6.Austrian Science FundViennaAustria
  7. 7.Department of ZoologyUniversity of OtagoDunedinNew Zealand
  8. 8.BC3-Basque Centre for Climate ChangeLeioaSpain

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