Journal of Paleolimnology

, Volume 60, Issue 2, pp 247–271 | Cite as

Using palaeoecological records to disentangle the effects of multiple stressors on floodplain wetlands

  • Michael A. ReidEmail author
  • Stephen Chilcott
  • Martin C. Thoms
Original paper


Ecosystems worldwide are subject to the deleterious effects of multiple anthropogenic stressors. Understanding and mitigating the effects of these stressors is difficult both because stressors are confounded in space and have the potential to act both synergistically and antagonistically. Palaeoecological approaches applied to systems where stressors may be confounded in space but not in time offer a way to explore the effects of multiple stressors. This multi-proxy study of sediment records from four floodplain lakes (billabongs) on a dryland river floodplain subject to grazing, commencing in the late 1800s, and irrigated cropping, commencing in the late 1900s, tests this approach. The results suggest that the effects of both grazing and irrigation on floodplain ecosystems can be detected in the pollen and diatoms preserved in sedimentary records of billabongs. For the pollen, these changes are inconsistent, but appear to reflect local shifts in dominance among major tree taxa and among key understorey plant families. For the diatoms, the changes were also not consistent across sites, but can be generalised as reductions in epiphytic diatoms and increases in planktonic and facultative planktonic taxa that likely reflect increased fluxes of sediments and nutrients and reduced flood frequency. Overall, the effects of grazing appear to have been greater than irrigated cropping. The results also show that the relative effects of grazing and irrigated cropping on floodplain and riparian vegetation and on diatom communities vary between billabongs, with some evidence that at least some of this variation relates to the level of hydrological connection to the mainstream. Finally, the study suggests that for the most part, grazing and irrigated cropping act antagonistically in the way they impact these floodplain ecosystems, a pattern that likely reflects a release from grazing pressure associated with the increase in irrigated cropping. Future applications of the approach should increase spatial and temporal replication and develop more sophisticated frameworks that account for temporal variation in driver intensity and proxy indicators of the specific stressors that influence ecosystem structure and function.


Dryland rivers Diatoms Pollen Floodplain wetlands Grazing Irrigation 



The authors wish to thank Munique Reid for her assistance with field work and Thomas Davidson for his sage advice about numerical analysis (in which regard he bears no responsibility for our incapacity to follow his advice).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael A. Reid
    • 1
    Email author
  • Stephen Chilcott
    • 2
  • Martin C. Thoms
    • 3
  1. 1.Geography and PlanningUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  2. 2.NSW Department of IndustriesSydney Institute of Marine ScienceMosmanAustralia
  3. 3.Riverine Landscapes Research Laboratory, Geography and PlanningUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

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