, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 1–13 | Cite as

A Floodplain Continuum for Atlantic Coast Rivers of the Southeastern US: Predictable Changes in Floodplain Biota along a River’s Length

  • Darold P. Batzer
  • Gregory B. Noe
  • Linda Lee
  • Mark Galatowitsch
Mark Brinson Review


Floodplains are among the world’s economically-most-valuable, environmentally-most-threatened, and yet conceptually-least-understood ecosystems. Drawing on concepts from existing riverine and wetland models, and empirical data from floodplains of Atlantic Coast rivers in the Southeastern US (and elsewhere when possible), we introduce a conceptual model to explain a continuum of longitudinal variation in floodplain ecosystem functions with a particular focus on biotic change. Our hypothesis maintains that major controls on floodplain ecology are either external (ecotonal interactions with uplands or stream/river channels) or internal (wetland-specific functions), and the relative importance of these controls changes progressively from headwater to mid-river to lower-river floodplains. Inputs of water, sediments, nutrients, flora, and fauna from uplands-to-floodplains decrease, while the impacts of wetland biogeochemistry and obligate wetland plants and animals within-floodplains increase, along the length of a river floodplain. Inputs of water, sediment, nutrients, and fauna from river/stream channels to floodplains are greatest mid-river, and lower either up- or down-stream. While the floodplain continuum we develop is regional in scope, we review how aspects may apply more broadly. Management of coupled floodplain-river ecosystems would be improved by accounting for how factors controlling the floodplain ecosystem progressively change along longitudinal riverine gradients.


Ecotonal interaction Flood-pulse continuum Hydrology River continuum Wetland functions 


  1. Adis J, Junk WJ (2002) Terrestrial invertebrates inhabiting lowland river floodplains of Central Amazonia and Central Europe: a review. Freshwater Biology 47:711–731CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Arscott DB, Tockner K, Ward JV (2005) Lateral organization of aquatic invertebrates along the corridor of a braided floodplain river. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 24:934–954CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Austin SH, Wiegand U (2009) Annual maximum stages and discharges of selected streams in Virginia through 2007: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2009–1007, p 733. Accessed 1 Feb 2017
  4. Balcombe SR, Bunn SE, Arthington AH, Fawcett JH, McKenzie-Smith FJ, Wright A (2007) Fish larvae, growth and biomass relationships in an Australian arid zone river: links between floodplains and waterholes. Freshwater Biology 52:2385–2398CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Batzer D, Gallardo B, Boulton A, Whiles M (2016) Invertebrates of temperate-zone river floodplains. In: Batzer D, Boix D (eds) Invertebrates in freshwater wetlands: an international perspective on their ecology. Springer, New York, pp 451–492CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bayley PB (1995) Understanding large river-floodplain ecosystems. Bioscience 45:153–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bright EG, Batzer DP, Garnett JA (2010) Variation in invertebrate and fish communities across floodplain ecotones of the Altamaha and savannah rivers. Wetlands 30:1117–1128CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Brinson MM (1993) Changes in the functioning of wetlands along environmental gradients. Wetlands 13:65–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brinson MM, Malvarez AI (2002) Temperate freshwater wetlands: types, status, and threats. Environmental Conservation 29:115–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Costanza R, de Groot R, Sutton P, van der Ploeg S, Anderson SJ, Kubiszewski I, Farber S, Turner RK (2014) Changes in the global value of ecosystem services. Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions 26:152–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Covino T (2017) Hydrologic connectivity as a framework for understandiong biogeochemical flux through watersheds and along fluvial networks. Geomorphology 277:133–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Craig JF, Halls AS, Barr JJF, Bean CW (2004) The Bangladesh floodplain fisheries. Fisheries Research 66:271–286CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Creed IF, McNight DM, Pellerin BA, Green MB, Bergamachi BA, Aiken GR, Burns DA, Findlay SEG, Shanley JB, Striegl RG, Aulenbach BT, Clow DW, Laudon H, McGlynn BL, McGuire KJ, Smith RA, Stackpoole SM (2015) The river as a chemostat: fresh perspectives on dissolved organic matter flowing down the river continuum. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 72:1272–1285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dodov B, Foufoula-Georgiou E (2005) Fluvial processes and streamflow variability: interplay in the scale-frequency continuum and implications for scaling. Water Resources Research 41(5):W05005CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Environmental Laboratory (1987) Corps of Engineers wetlands delineation manual. US Army Engineer Waterways Experiment Station, Vicksburg, MS. Technical Report Y-87–1Google Scholar
  16. Fernandes CC (1997) Lateral migration of fishes in Amazon floodplains. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 6:36–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Gabor CR, Nice CC (2004) Genetic variation among populations of eastern newts, Notophthalmus viridescens: A preliminary analysis based on allozymes. Herpetologica 60:373–386CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Galatowitsch ML, Batzer DP (2011) Benefits and costs of Leptophlebia (Ephemeroptera) mayfly movements between river channels and floodplain wetlands. Canadian Journal of Zoology 89:714–723CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gallardo B, Garcia M, Cabezas A, Gonzalez E, Gonzalez M, Ciancarelli C, Comin FA (2008) Macroinvertebrate patterns along environmental gradients and hydrological connectivity within a regulated river-floodplain. Aquatic Sciences 70:248–258CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Gallardo B, Dolédec S, Paillex A, Arscott DB, Sheldon F, Zilli F, Mérigoux S, Castella E, Comin FA (2014) Response of benthic macroinvertebrates to gradients in hydrological connectivity: a comparison of temperate, subtropical, Mediterranean and semiarid river floodplains. Freshwater Biology 59:630–648CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Garnett JA, Batzer DP (2014) Longitudinal variation in community structure of floodplain fishes along two rivers of the southeastern USA. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 71:1291–1302CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gergel SE, Carpenter SR, Stanley EH (2005) Do dams and levees impact nitrogen cycling? Simulating the effects of flood alterations on floodplain denitrification. Global Change Biology 11:1352–1367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gray D, Harding JS (2009) Braided river benthic diversity at multiple spatial scales: a hierarchical analysis of β diversity in complex floodplain systems. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 28:537–551CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Guan Q, Wu H, Lu K, Lu X, Batzer DP (2017) Longitudinal and lateral variation in snail assemblages along a floodplain continuum. Hydrobiologia 292:345–356CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Harvey J, Gooseff M (2015) River corridor science: hydrologic exchange and ecological consequences from bedforms to basins. Water Resources Research 51:6893–6922CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Hauer FR, Locke H, Dreitz VJ, Hebblewhite M, Lowe WH, Muhlfeld CC, Nelson CR, Proctor MF, Rood SB (2016) Gravel-bed river floodplains are the ecological nexus of glaciated mountain landscapes. Science Advancements 2:e1600026Google Scholar
  27. Hess GW, Stamey TC (1993) Annual peak discharges and stages for gaging station in Georgia through September 1990. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report, Anlanta, pp 92–113Google Scholar
  28. Hodges JD (1998) Minor alluvial floodplains. In: Messina MG, Conner WH (eds) Southern forested wetlands: ecology and management. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, pp 325–342Google Scholar
  29. Humphries P, Keckeis H, Finlayson B (2014) The river wave concept: integrating river ecosystem models. Bioscience 64:870–882CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hupp CR (1986) Upstream variation in bottomland vegetation patterns, northwestern Virginia. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 113:421–430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hupp CR (2000) Hydrology, geomorphology and vegetation of coastal plain rivers in the south-eastern USA. Hydrological Processes 14:2991–3010CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hupp CR, Pierce AR, Noe GB (2009) Floodplain geomorphic processes and environmental impacts of human alteration along coastal plain rivers, USA. Wetlands 29:413–429CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hupp CR, Noe GB, Schenk ER, Benthem AJ (2013) Recent and historic sediment dynamics along difficult run, a suburban Virginia piedmont stream. Geomorphology 180:156–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hupp CR, Schenk ER, Kroes DE, Willard DA, Townsend PA, Peet RK (2015) Patterns of floodplain sediment deposition along the regulated lower Roanoke River, North Carolina: annual, decadal, centennial scales. Geomorphology 228:666–680CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Jackson CR, Martin JK, Leigh DS, West LT (2005) A southeastern piedmont watershed sediment budget evidence for a multi-millennial agricultural legacy. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 60:298–310Google Scholar
  36. Junk WJ (2005) Flood pulsing and the linkages between terrestrial, aquatic and wetland systems (Baldi lecture). Verhandlungen der Internationalischen Vereinigung für Theoretische und Angewandte Limnologie 29:11–38Google Scholar
  37. Junk WJ, Wantzen KM (2006) Flood pulsing and the development and maintenance of biodiversity in floodplains. In: Batzer DP, Sharitz RR (eds) Ecology of freshwater and estuarine wetlands. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 407–435Google Scholar
  38. Junk WJ, Bailey PB, Sparks RE (1989) The flood-pulse concept in river-floodplain systems. Special Publication of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 106:110–127Google Scholar
  39. Junk WJ, Wittman F, Schöngart PMTF (2015) A classification of the major habitats of Amazonian black-water river floodplain and a comparison with their white-water counterparts. Wetlands Ecology and Management 23:677–693CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Keaton JN, Messinger T, Doheny EJ (2005) Development and analysis of regional curves for streams in the non-urban valley and ridge physiographic province, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Scientific Investigations Report 2005–5076.
  41. King AJ, Humphries P, Lake PS (2003) Fish recruitment on floodplains: the roles of patterns of flooding and life history characteristics. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 60:773–786CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. King SL, Sharitz RR, Groninger JW, Battaglia LL (2009) The ecology, restoration, and management of southeastern floodplain ecosystems: a synthesis. Wetlands 29:624–634CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. King SL, Battaglia HCR, Kiem RF, Lockaby BG (2012) Floodplain wetlands of the southeastern coastal plain. In: Batzer DP, Baldwin AH (eds) Wetland habitats of North America: ecology and conservation concerns. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 253–266Google Scholar
  44. Kroes DE, Brinson MM (2004) Occurrence of riverine wetlands on floodplains along a climatic gradient. Wetlands 24:167–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kroes DE, Hupp CR, Noe GB (2007) Sediment, nutrient, and vegetation trends along the tidal, forested Pocomoke River, Maryland. In: Conner WH, Doyle TW, Krauss KW (eds) Ecology of tidal freshwater forested wetlands of the southeastern United States. Springer, Dordrecht, pp 113–137Google Scholar
  46. Lee L (2008) Potential effects of altered hydrology on floodplain forests of the Savannah River. University of Georgia, Athens, Master’s thesisGoogle Scholar
  47. Lee LS, Garnett JA, Bright EG, Sharitz RR, Batzer DP (2016) Vegetation, invertebrate, and fish community response to past and current flow regulation in floodplains of the Savannah River, southeastern USA. Wetlands Ecology and Management 24:443–455CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lewandowski J, Lischeid G, Nutzmann G (2009) Drivers of water level fluctuations and hydrological exchange between groundwater and surface water at the lowland river spree (Germany): field study and statistical analyses. Hydrological Processes 23:2117–2126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lichvar RW, Banks DL, Kirchner WN, Melvin NC (2016) The National Wetland Plant List: 2016 wetland ratings. Phyton 2016-30:1–17Google Scholar
  50. Lotspeich RR (2009) Regional curves of bankfull channel geometry for non-urban streams in the piedmont Physiographic Province. Virginia: US Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 51:2009–5206Google Scholar
  51. Markewich HW, Pavich MJ, Buell GR (1990) Contrasting soils and landscapes of the piedmont and coastal plain, eastern United States. Geomorphology 3:417–447CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. McCandless TL (2003) Maryland stream survey: bankfull discharge and channel characteristics of streams in the coastal plain hydrologic region. US fish and wildlife service, Chesapeake Bay field Office. CBFO-S03–02Google Scholar
  53. Mertes LAK (1997) Documentation and significance of the perirheic zone on inundated floodplains. Water Resources Research 33:1749–1762CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Moyer DL, Bennett MR (2007) Development of relations of stream stage to channel geometry and discharge for stream segments simulated with Hydrologic Simulation Program–Fortran (HSPF), Chesapeake Bay Watershed and adjacent parts of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware: US Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007–5135Google Scholar
  55. Naiman RJ, Henri Decamps H, Michael E. McClain ME (2005) Riparia. Academic Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  56. Noe GB (2013) Interactions among hydrogeomorphology, vegetation, and nutrient biogeochemistry in floodplain ecosystems. In: Shroder JF, Butler DR, Hu CR (eds) Treatise on geomorphology, Ecogeomorphology, vol 12. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 307–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Noe G, Hupp C, Rybicki N (2013) Hydrogeomorphology influences soil nitrogen and phosphorus mineralization in floodplain wetlands. Ecosystems 16:75–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Opperman JJ, Luster R, McKenney BA, Roberts M, Meadows AW (2010) Ecologically functional floodplains: connectivity, flow regime, and scale. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 46:211–226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Phillips JD (1992) The source of alluvium in large rivers of the lower coastal plain of North Carolina. Catena 19:59–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Phillips JD (2013) Hydrological connectivity of abandoned channel water bodies on a coastal plain river. River Research and Applications 29:149–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Poff NL, Allan JD, Bain MB, Karr JR, Prestegaard KL, Richter BD, Sparks RE, Stromberg JC (1997) The natural flow regime. Bioscience 47:769–784CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Poole GC (2002) Fluvial landscape ecology: addressing uniqueness within the river discontinuum. Freshwater Biology 47:641–660CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Reese EG, Batzer DP (2007) Do invertebrate communities in floodplains change predictably along a river’s length? Freshwater Biology 52:226–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Rheinhardt RD (2007) Tidal freshwater swamps of a lower Chesapeake Bay subestuary. In: Conner WH, Doyle TW, Krauss KW (eds) Ecology of tidal freshwater forested wetlands of the southeastern United States. Springer, Berlin, pp 161–182CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rheinhardt R, Wilder T, Williams H, Klimas C, Noble C (2013) Variation in forest canopy composition of riparian networks from headwaters to large river floodplains in the southeast coastal plain, USA. Wetlands 33:1117–1126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Rybicki NB, Noe GB, Hupp C, Robinson ME (2015) Vegetation composition, nutrient, and sediment dynamics along a floodplain landscape. River Systems 21:109–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Smock LA (1994) Movements of invertebrates between stream channels and forested floodplains. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 13:524–531CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Starr SM, Benstead JP, Sponseller RA (2014) Spatial and temporal organization of macroinvertebrate assemblages in a lowland floodplain ecosystem. Landscape Ecology 29:1017–1031CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Stoffels RJ, Rehwinkel RA, Price AE, Fagan WF (2016) Dynamics of fish dispersal during river-floodplain connectivity and its implications for community assembly. Aquatic Sciences 78:355–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Sweet WV, Geratz JW (2003) Bankfull hydraulic geometry relationships and recurrence intervals for North Carolina's coastal plain. Journal of the American Water Resources Association 39:861–871CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Tockner K, Malard F, Ward JV (2000) An extension of the flood pulse concept. Hydrological Processes 14:2861–2883CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Vannote RL, Minshall GW, Cummins KW, Sedell JR, Cushing CE (1980) The river continuum concept. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 37:130–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Walton R, Davis JE, Martin TH, Chapman RS (1996) Hydrology of the black swamp wetlands on the Cache River, Arkansas. Wetlands 16:279–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wantzen KM, Marchese MR, Marques MI, Battirola LD (2016) Invertebrates in Neotropical floodplains. In: Batzer D, Boix D (eds) Invertebrates in freshwater wetlands: an international perspective on their ecology. Springer, Berlin, pp 493–524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ward JV (1989) The 4-dimensional nature of lotic ecosystems. Journal of the North American Benthological Society 8:2–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Ward JV, Stanford JA (1995) Ecological connectivity in alluvial river ecosystems and its disruption by flow regulation. Regulated Rivers: Research and Management 11:105–119CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. van de Wolfshaar KE, Middelkoop H, Addink E, Winter HV, Nagelkerke LAJ (2011) Linking flow regime, floodplain lake connectivity and fish catch in a large river-floodplain system, the Volga-Akhtuba floodplain (Russian Federation). Ecosystems 14:920–934CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Society of Wetland Scientists 2017 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Darold P. Batzer
    • 1
  • Gregory B. Noe
    • 2
  • Linda Lee
    • 3
  • Mark Galatowitsch
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of EntomologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  2. 2.Hydrological-Ecological Interactions Branch, U.S. Geological SurveyRestonUSA
  3. 3.University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology LaboratoryAikenUSA
  4. 4.Biology DepartmentCentre CollegeDanvilleUSA

Personalised recommendations