, Volume 20, Issue 3, pp 492–514 | Cite as

Productivity and Connectivity in Tropical Riverscapes of Northern Australia: Ecological Insights for Management

  • Neil E. PettitEmail author
  • Robert J. Naiman
  • Danielle M. Warfe
  • Tim D. Jardine
  • Michael M. Douglas
  • Stuart E. Bunn
  • Peter M. Davies


Flow regimes are fundamental to sustaining ecological characteristics of rivers worldwide, including their associated floodplains. Recent advances in understanding tropical river–floodplain ecosystems suggest that a small set of basic ecological concepts underpins their biophysical characteristics, especially the high levels of productivity, biodiversity and natural resilience. The concepts relate to (1) river-specific flow patterns, (2) processes ‘fuelled’ by a complex of locally generated carbon and nutrients seasonally mixed with carbon and nutrients from floodplains and catchments, (3) seasonal movements of biota facilitated by flood regimes, (4) food webs and overall productivity sustained by hydrological connectivity, (5) fires in the wet/dry tropical floodplains and riparian zones being major consumers of carbon and a key factor in the subsequent redistribution of nutrients, and (6) river–floodplains having inherent resilience to natural variability but only limited resilience to artificial modifications. Understanding these concepts is particularly timely in anticipating the effects of impending development that may affect tropical river–floodplains at the global scale. Australia, a region encompassing some of the last relatively undisturbed tropical riverine landscapes in the world, provides a valuable case study for understanding the productivity, diversity and resilience of tropical river–floodplain systems. However, significant knowledge gaps remain. Despite substantial recent advances in understanding, present knowledge of these highly complex tropical rivers is insufficient to predict many ecological responses to either human-generated or climate-related changes. The major research challenges identified herein (for example, those related to food web structure, nutrient transfers, productivity, connectivity and resilience), if accomplished in the next decade, will offer substantial insights toward assessing and managing ecological changes associated with human alterations to rivers and their catchments.


connectivity floodplains biogeochemistry food webs fluxes nutrients 



The authors thank the staff at the Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management, UWA Albany for their support, as well as advice on figures and tables. The authors wish to thank Dr Doug Ward, Mr Dominic Valdez (Griffith University) and Prof. Steve Hamilton (Michigan State University) for sharing their ideas and lively discussions in the field and elsewhere. Dr Ward also produced the map for Figure 1. This research was funded through the Northern Australia Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program (NERP). The UWA Institute for Advanced Studies provided support for RJ Naiman, through the ‘Professor-at-Large’ Programme.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Neil E. Pettit
    • 1
    • 7
    Email author
  • Robert J. Naiman
    • 1
    • 2
  • Danielle M. Warfe
    • 1
    • 3
  • Tim D. Jardine
    • 4
  • Michael M. Douglas
    • 5
  • Stuart E. Bunn
    • 6
  • Peter M. Davies
    • 1
  1. 1.Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource ManagementThe University of Western AustraliaAlbanyAustralia
  2. 2.School of Aquatic and Fishery SciencesUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  3. 3.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of TasmaniaHobartAustralia
  4. 4.University of SaskatchewanSaskatoonCanada
  5. 5.School of Earth and EnvironmentThe University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia
  6. 6.Australian Rivers InstituteGriffith UniversityNathanAustralia
  7. 7.School of Natural SciencesEdith Cowan UniversityJoondalupAustralia

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