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

Spatial and temporal variation in fish-assemblage structure in isolated waterholes during the 2001 dry season of an arid-zone floodplain river, Cooper Creek, Australia

Angela H. Arthington A E , Stephen R. Balcombe A , Glenn A. Wilson A B , Martin C. Thoms C and Jon Marshall D

A CRC for Freshwater Ecology (CRCFE), Centre for Riverine Landscapes, Griffith University, Nathan, Qld 4111, Australia.

B CRCFE, Murray–Darling Freshwater Research Centre, Goondiwindi, Qld 4390, Australia.

C CRCFE, University of Canberra, ACT 2016, Australia.

D Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Brisbane, Qld 4068, Australia.

E Corresponding author. Email:

Marine and Freshwater Research 56(1) 25-35
Submitted: 1 June 2004  Accepted: 25 November 2004   Published: 4 February 2005


Spatial and temporal variation in fish-assemblage structure within isolated waterholes on the floodplains of Cooper Creek, Australia, was studied during the 2001 dry season, a period of natural drought in this arid-zone river. Spatial variation in fish-assemblage structure and the abundance of five species in disconnected waterholes early in the dry season (April 2001) were related to the extent of floodplain inundation 14 months previously, and to the interconnectedness of waterholes and waterhole habitat structure. As the dry season progressed, waterhole volumes decreased owing to evaporative water loss and structural habitat elements (anabranches, bars, boulders) became exposed. Marked changes in fish assemblage structure between the early (April) and late (September) dry season were related to habitat loss but not to water chemistry. Interactions between flow and habitat across a nested hierarchy of spatial scales (the floodplain, the waterhole and habitat patches within waterholes) were crucial to the persistence of fish assemblages through the 2001 dry season. We conclude that the magnitude, timing and frequency of floodplain inundation and natural variations in waterhole volume must be maintained if we wish to sustain the distinctive habitats and fish assemblages of this arid-zone floodplain river.

Extra keywords: drought, flooding, Lake Eyre Basin, refugia.


This study contributes to the Dryland River Refugia Project funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, Canberra. We thank colleagues from the Centre for Riverine Landscapes at Griffith University, the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, the University of Canberra, the Murray–Darling Basin Freshwater Research Centre (Northern Basin Laboratory) and the New South Wales Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources for field assistance, data on river flows, preparation of figures and valuable discussions. 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. Three anonymous referees and the Managing Editor are thanked for helpful comments on the manuscript. Our research was conducted under Queensland Fisheries Permit PRM00157K.


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