Marine and Freshwater Research Marine and Freshwater Research Society
Advances in the aquatic sciences
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Ecological roles and threats to aquatic refugia in arid landscapes: dryland river waterholes

Fran Sheldon A B , Stuart E. Bunn A , Jane M. Hughes A , Angela H. Arthington A , Stephen R. Balcombe A and Christine S. Fellows A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Qld 4111, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email: f.sheldon@griffith.edu.au

Marine and Freshwater Research 61(8) 885-895 https://doi.org/10.1071/MF09239
Submitted: 23 September 2009  Accepted: 15 April 2010   Published: 13 August 2010

Abstract

Dryland rivers are renowned for their periods of ‘boom’ related to the episodic floods that extend over vast floodplains and fuel incredible production, and periods of ‘bust’ where the extensive channel network is restricted to the permanent refugial waterholes. Many of these river systems are unregulated by dams but are under increasing pressure, especially from water abstraction and overland flow interception for agriculture and mining. Although some aquatic organisms with desiccation-resistant life stages can utilise ephemeral floodplain habitats, the larger river waterholes represent the only permanent aquatic habitat during extended periods of low or no flow. These waterholes act as aquatic refugia in an otherwise terrestrial landscape. Variable patterns of connection and disconnection in space and time are a fundamental driver of diversity and function in these dryland river systems, and are vital for dispersal and the maintenance of diverse populations, generate the spatial and temporal variability in assemblage structure for a range of different organisms and fuel the productivity that sustains higher trophic levels. Changes to natural patterns of connection and disconnection of refugial waterholes, owing to water-resource development or climate change, will threaten their persistence and diminish their functional capacity to act as aquatic refugia.


Acknowledgements

The work for this paper was funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology through the Dryland River Refugia Project. We thank all the members of the Dryland River Refugia Project Team for their input, including colleagues from the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University, the Queensland Department of Environmental Resource Management, the University of Canberra, the Murray–Darling Basin Freshwater Research Centre (Northern Basin Laboratory) and the New South Wales Department of Water. We are also indebted to landowners Bob Morrish (Springfield), Angus Emmott (Noonbah), Sandy Kidd (Mayfield), David Smith (Hammond Downs) and George Scott (Tanbar) for allowing access to waterholes on their properties and for their hospitality and encouragement. We also thank three anonymous reviewers and the editor for very helpful comments on the manuscript.


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