Skip to main content
Log in

Baseflow physical characteristics differ at multiple spatial scales in stream networks across diverse biomes

  • Research Article
  • Published:
Landscape Ecology Aims and scope Submit manuscript



Spatial scaling of ecological processes is facilitated by quantifying underlying habitat attributes. Physical and ecological patterns are often measured at disparate spatial scales limiting our ability to quantify ecological processes at broader spatial scales using physical attributes.


We characterized variation of physical stream attributes during periods of high biological activity (i.e., baseflow) to match physical and ecological measurements and to identify the spatial scales exhibiting and predicting heterogeneity.


We measured canopy cover, wetted width, water depth, and sediment size along transects of 1st–5th order reaches in five stream networks located in biomes from tropical forest to arctic tundra. We used hierarchical analysis of variance with three nested scales (watersheds, stream orders, reaches) to identify scales exhibiting significant heterogeneity in attributes and regression analyses to characterize gradients within and across stream networks.


Heterogeneity was evident at one or multiple spatial scales: canopy cover and water depth varied significantly at all three spatial scales while wetted width varied at two scales (stream order and reach) and sediment size remained largely unexplained. Similarly, prediction by drainage area depended on the attribute considered: depending on the watershed, increases in wetted width and water depth with drainage area were best fit with a linear, logarithmic, or power function. Variation in sediment size was independent of drainage area.


The scaling of ecologically relevant baseflow physical characteristics will require study beyond the traditional bankfull geomorphology since predictions of baseflow physical attributes by drainage area were not always best explained by geomorphic power laws.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Subscribe and save

Springer+ Basic
EUR 32.99 /Month
  • Get 10 units per month
  • Download Article/Chapter or Ebook
  • 1 Unit = 1 Article or 1 Chapter
  • Cancel anytime
Subscribe now

Buy Now

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Battin TJ, Kaplan LA, Newbold JD, Hansen CM (2003) Contributions of microbial biofilms to ecosystem processes in stream mesocosms. Nature 426:439–442

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Benda L, Andras K, Miller D, Bigelow P (2004) Confluence effects in rivers: interactions of basin scale, network geometry, and disturbance regimes. Water Resour Res 40(4)

  • Brown JH, Gillooly JF, Allen AP, Savage VM, West GB (2004) Toward a metabolic theory of ecology. Ecology 85:1771–1789

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bunte K, Abt SR (2001) Sampling frame for improving pebble count accuracy in coarse gravel-bed streams. J Am Water Resour Assoc 37:1001–1014

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Burchsted D, Daniels MD, Thorson RM, Vokoun JC (2010) The river discontinuum: beavers (castor canadensis) and baseline conditions for restoration of forested headwaters. Bioscience 60:908–921

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Campbell-Grant EH, Lowe WH, Fagan WF (2007) Living in the branches: population dynamics and ecological processes in dendritic networks. Ecol Lett 10:165–175

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Carbonneau P, Fonstad MA, Marcus WA, Dugdale SJ (2012) Making riverscapes real. Geomorphology 137:74–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dodds WK, Brock J (1998) A portable flow chamber for in situ determination of benthic metabolism. Freshw Biol 39:49–59

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dodds WK, Gido K, Whiles MR, Fritz KM, Matthews WJ (2004) Life on the edge: the ecology of Great Plains prairie streams. Bioscience 54:205–216

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dodds WK, Gido K, Whiles MR, Daniels MD, Grudzinski BP (2015) The Stream Biome Gradient Concept: factors controlling lotic systems across broad biogeographic scales. Freshw Sci. doi:10.1086/679756

    Google Scholar 

  • Doyle MW, Stanley EH, Strayer DL, Jacobson RB, Schmidt JC (2005) Effective discharge analysis of ecological processes in streams. Water Resour Res 41(11)

  • Flecker AS, Taylor BW, Bernhardt ES, Hood JM, Cornwell WK, Cassatt SR, Vanni MJ, Altman NS (2002) Interactions between herbivorous fishes and limiting nutrients in a tropical stream ecosystem. Ecology 83:1831–1844

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fonstad M, Andrew MW (2003) Self-organized criticality in riverbank systems. Ann Assoc Am Geogr 93:281–296

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fonstad MA, Marcus WA (2010) High resolution, basin extent observations and implications for understanding river form and process. Earth Surf Proc Land 35:680–698

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall RO, Yackulic CB, Kennedy TA, Yard MD, Rosi‐Marshall EJ, Voichick N, Behn KE (2015) Turbidity, light, temperature, and hydropeaking control primary productivity in the Colorado River, Grand Canyon. Limnol Oceanogr. doi:10.1002/lno.10031

    Google Scholar 

  • Harvey CJ, Peterson BJ, Bowden WB, Hershey AE, Miller MC, Deegan LA, Finlay JC (1998) Biological responses to fertilization of Oksrukuyik Creek, a tundra stream. J N Am Benthol Soc 17:190–209

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Haugen RK, Slaughter CW, Howe KE, Dingman SL (1982) Hydrology and climatology of the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed, Alaska. Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory Report 82-26

  • Heffernan JB, Soranno PA, Angilletta MJ Jr, Buckley LB, Gruner DS, Keitt TH, Kellner JR, Kominoski JS, Rocha AV, Xiao J, Harms TK, Goring SJ, Koenig LE, McDowell WH, Powell H, Richardson AD, Stow CA, Vargas R, Weathers KC (2014) Macrosystems ecology: understanding ecological patterns and processes at continental scales. Front Ecol Environ 12:5–14

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hewitt JE, Thrush SF, Dayton PK, Bonsdorff E (2007) The effect of spatial and temporal heterogeneity on the design and analysis of empirical studies of scale-dependent systems. Am Nat 169:398–408

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Johnston MH (1992) Soil-vegetation relationships in a tabonuco forest community in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico. J Trop Ecol 8:253–263

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Junk W, Bayley PB, Sparks RE (1986) The flood pulse concept in river-floodplain systems. International large river symposium

  • Leopold LB, Maddock T (1953) The hydraulic geometry of stream channels and some physiographic implications. United States Geological Survey Professional Paper. United States Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, p 252

  • Levin SA (1992) The problem of pattern and scale in ecology. Ecology 73:1943–1967

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lowe WH, Likens GE, Power ME (2006) Linking scales in stream ecology. Bioscience 56:591–597

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marzolf ER, Mulholland PJ, Steinman AD (1994) Improvements to the diurnal upstream-downstream dissolved oxygen change technique for determining whole-stream metabolism in small streams. Can J Fish Aquatic Sci 51:1591–1599

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Melbourne BA, Chesson P (2006) The scale transition: scaling up populations dynamics with field data. Ecology 87:1478–1488

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Montgomery DR, Buffington JM (1997) Channel reach morphology in mountain drainage basins. Geo Soc Am Bull 109:596–611

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Newson M, Newson C (2000) Geomorphology, ecology and river channel habitat: mesoscale approaches to basin-scale challenges. Prog Phys Geog 24:195–217

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Palmer MA, Swan CM, Nelson K, Silver P, Alvestad R (2000) Streambed landscapes: evidence that invertebrates respond to the type and spatial arrangement of patches. Landscape Ecol 15:563–576

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peters DP, Groffman PM, Nadelhoffer KJ, Grimm NB, Collins SL, Michener WK, Huston MA (2008) Living in an increasingly connected world: a framework for continental-scale environmental science. Front Ecol Environ 6:229–237

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pike AS, Scatena FN, Wohl EE (2010) Lithological and fluvial controls on the geomorphology of tropical montane stream channels in Puerto Rico. Earth Surf Proc Land 35:1402–1417

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Poole GC (2002) Fluvial landscape ecology: addressing uniqueness within the river discontinuum. Freshw Biol 47:641–660

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pringle CM, Naiman RJ, Bretschko G, Karr JR, Oswood MW, Welcomme RL, Webster JR (1988) Patch dynamics in lotic systems: the stream as a mosaic. J N Am Benthol Soc 7:503–524

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rastetter EB, King AW, Cosby BJ, Hornberger GM, O’Neill RV, Hobbie JE (1992) Aggregating fine-scale ecological knowledge to model coarser-scale attributes of ecosystems. Ecol Appl 2:55–70

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rice S (1998) Which tributaries disrupt downstream fining along gravel-bed rivers? Geomorphology 22:39–56

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rüegg J, Brant J, Larson D, Trentman M, WK Dodds (2015) A portable, modular, self-contained recirculating chamber to measure benthic processes under controlled water velocity. Freshw Sci 34:831–844

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sandel B, Smith AB (2009) Scale as a lurking factor: incorporating scale-dependence in experimental ecology. Oikos 118:1284–1291

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stumpf KA (1993) The estimation of forest vegetation cover descriptions using a vertical densitometer. Joint Inventory and Biometrics Working Groups session at the SAF National Convention, Indianapolis, IN

  • Swank WT, Jr Crossley DA (1988) Forest hydrology and ecology at Coweeta. Ecological studies, vol 66. Springer, New York

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Thorp JH, Thoms MC, Delong MD (2006) The riverine ecosystem synthesis: biocomplexity in river networks across space and time. River Res Appl 22:123–147

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Thrush SF, Schneider DC, Legendre P, Whitlatch RB, Dayton PK, Hewitt JE, Hines AH, Cummings VJ, Lawrie SM, Grant J, Pridmore RD, Turner J, McArdle BH (1997) Scaling up from experiments to complex ecological system: where to next? J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 216:243–254

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vannote RL, Minshall GW, Cummins KW, Sedell JR, Cushing CE (1980) The river continuum concept. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 37:130–137

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Veach AM, Dodds WK, Skibbee A (2014) Fire and grazing influences on rates of riparian woody plant expansion along grassland streams. PLoS ONE 9:e106922

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Walker MD, Walker DA, Auerbach NA (1994) Plant communities of a tussock tundra landscape in the Brooks Range Foothills, Alaska. J Veg Sci 5:843–866

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ward JV, Stanford JA (1983) The serial discontinuity concept of lotic ecosystems. Dynam Lotic Ecosyst 10:29–42

    Google Scholar 

  • West GB, Brown JH, Enquist BJ (1999) The fourth dimension of life: fractal geometry and allometric scaling of organisms. Science 284:1677–1679

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Whiting DP, Whiles MR, Stone ML (2011) Patterns of macroinvertebrate production, trophic structure, and energy flow along a tallgrass prairie stream continuum. Limnol Oceanogr 56:887–898

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wiens JA (1989) Spatial scaling in ecology. Funct Ecol 3:385–397

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wiens JA (2002) Riverine landscapes: taking landscape ecology into the water. Freshw Biol 47:501–515

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Yair A, Raz-Yassif N (2004) Hydrological processes in a small arid catchment: scale effects of rainfall and slope length. Geomorphology 61:155–169

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Kyle Arndt, Ford Ballantyne, John Brant, Phillip Bumpers, Jason Coombs, Cindy Fifield, Derrick Jent, Audrey Mutschlecner, Katie Norris, Claire Ruffing, Geoff Schwaner, Ryan Sleeper, Chao Song, Rachel Voight for help with field measurements. This research was funded by US NSF Macrosystems grant #EF1065255. This is publication 16-134-J from the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Janine Rüegg.

Additional information

Special issue: Macrosystems ecology: Novel methods and new understanding of multi-scale patterns and processes.

Guest Editors: S. Fei, Q. Guo, and K. Potter.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


Hydrograph of the study periods at one gauged station in each stream network. Grey areas indicate sampling window of data collected presented in this manuscript. Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material. (TIF 20,532 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Rüegg, J., Dodds, W.K., Daniels, M.D. et al. Baseflow physical characteristics differ at multiple spatial scales in stream networks across diverse biomes. Landscape Ecol 31, 119–136 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: