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Freshwater ecosystem functioning


freshwaterBIODIVERSITY carries activities on the relationships between freshwater biodiversity changes and ecosystem functioning. Even though this topic received much attention over the past 20 years, there are many unresolved issues related to the effects of biodiversity on ecosystem functioning and the connection to the services provided to society.

From 2006 to 2009, freshwaterBIODIVERSITY implemented this topic through 1) workshops addressing specific issues such as functions and values of wetlands, role of environmental changes in the spread of pathogens in freshwater ecosystems; and 2) endorsement of research projects.

Since 2010, the activities of freshwaterBIODIVERSITY on this topic are carried out through two main projects:

    • AquaBase: Science-based management and restoration of freshwater ecosystem services
    • BioFresh: Biodiversity of Freshwater ecosystems: status, trends, pressures, and conservation priorities.


AquaBase: Science-based management and restoration of freshwater ecosystem services

Restoring freshwater ecosystems on a global scale is limited by the lack of scientific data on ecosystem responses to management and science-based tools to assist managers in their decision-making. AquaBase is a collaborative project that focuses on developing quantitative relationships – called ecological production functions – that link management options to underlying biophysical processes and ecosystem service provisioning. This is accomplished using a combination of literature reviews, expert and stakeholder workshops, hydro-ecological modelling and empirical research. The project takes a case study approach in the USA, Kenya and Tanzania, and South Africa. The research team will generate individual ecological production functions that also consider socio-political settings and climate change scenarios, as well as a decision-support tool that will be used to inform restoration and management decisions on local to global scales.

The USA case study for the Chesapeake Bay began in 2011 and is funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Kenyan and Tanzanian case study for the transboundary Mara River Basin began in 2011 and is funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affair (DGIS). Preliminary results were presented by each team at the 4th International EcoSummit.


AquaBase participants

  • Coordinator: Margaret Palmer, University of Maryland, USA
  • Michael McClain, UNESCO-IHE, The Netherlands, Kenya, Tanzania
  • Jeanne Nel, CSIR, South Africa


AquaBase workshops and conferences

Preparatory workshop of AquaBase

June 2010 – Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA

The AquaBase research group met in conjunction with the North American Benthological Society (now the Society for Freshwater Science, SFS) Annual Meeting. The objective of this preparatory workshop group was to chart out the activities that will take place during the following two years to complete the AquaBase research agenda.

Contact: Margaret Palmer, University of Maryland, USA


AquaBase Special Session at 4th International EcoSummit

October 2012 – Columbus, Ohio, USA

The AquaBase research group organised a special session at the 4th International EcoSummit conference.  The objective was to present primary research on restoration efforts in wetlands and freshwater in the USA and Africa to showcase the range of studies that develop ecological production functions for freshwater ecosystem services.

Contact: Margaret Palmer or Catherine Febria, University of Maryland, USA


BioFresh: Biodiversity of Freshwater ecosystems: status, trends, pressures, and conservation priorities

Scientists and water managers have collected vast amounts of data on freshwater biodiversity. However, it is often impossible to ascertain the geographic range of a species. Why is this? The existing data from all of freshwater biodiversity studies are widely dispersed, gathered in locally-managed databases, many of which are not publicly available. Scattered this way, these data form a global puzzle and are difficult to find.

BioFresh aims at combining and making all these data easily accessible to scientists, policy makers and planners. Such an integrated and accessible dataset will be used to improve and establish effective plans for conservation and for a better understanding of the services provided by aquatic ecosystems.

BioFresh will improve the capacity to protect and manage freshwater biodiversity by:

  • Building an information platform as a gateway for scientific research on freshwater biodiversity;
  • Raising awareness of the importance of freshwater biodiversity and its role in providing ecosystem services; and
  • Predicting the future responses of freshwater biodiversity to multiple stressors in the face of global change.

BioFresh is an EU-funded international project that integrates the freshwater biodiversity competencies and expertise of 19 research institutions.


BioFresh coodinator

Klement Tockner, Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Germany

2006-2009 activities

Endorsed projects

BioCycle: Biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles: a search for mechanisms across ecosystems (2006-2009)

BioCycle, a European Science Foundation EuroDIVERSITY collaborative research project, assessed the importance of biodiversity in biogeochemical cycles by examining the interactive effects of substrate diversity, in the form of plant litter, and decomposer fauna diversity on carbon and nutrient cycling across a gradient of paired terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems running from the subarctic to the tropics. BioCycle combined an experimental and comparative approach bridging distinct research domains across ecosystem types and climate zones. By doing so the project aimed to address a number of critical questions relating to how changing biodiversity will affect ecosystem functioning. This provided the information required for predictive modeling attempts.

Five pairs of sites were established: (1) subarctic, (2) boreal, (3) temperate, (4) Mediterranean and 5) tropical vegetation zones. Within each biome there were a forest and a forest stream site, both receiving the same type of leaf litter inputs. By using the same experimental setup and protocol across this range of sites, the project seeked to gain an unprecedented general understanding of diversity controls over decomposition across ecosystem types and climatic zones.Experiments tested the following hypotheses:

  • The diversity of plant litter and litter consumers interactively influence carbon fluxes and nutrient dynamics during decomposition, with process rates decreasing as diversity declines.
  • The significance of biodiversity in determining decomposition and nutrient dynamics diminishes with increasing environmental constraints along the latitudinal gradient.
  • Diversity has a stronger influence on decomposition in terrestrial than in aquatic ecosystems, because complementary resource use is a more effective mechanism for synergistic interactions in a structurally complex environment like soil than in a homogenous environment like water.
  • Decomposition in more diverse litter and decomposer systems shows greater resistance/resilience to perturbation (insurance hypothesis), and thus, are less affected by negative impacts of ongoing global change such as increasing drought severity.

Contact: Stephan Hättenschwiler, CEFE-CNRS, France


Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in South African streams (2006-2009)
Sponsor: Research Grants Council

This project aimed at quantifying a variety of values related to wetlands in the Orange Basin in South Africa, looking at the benefits provided by wetlands to humans, with a view to provide some motivation to decision makers to increase conservation efforts in wetland areas of the upper basin. This valuation was based on values of wetland goods and services to support livelihoods, wetland functions for water purification, and wetland benefits to support economic development from biodiversity based tourism.

Coordinator: Caroline Sullivan, Southern Cross University, Australia

Workshops and conferences

Wetland and Aquatic Ecosystems: their functions and values - A knowledge exchange workshop for research scientists and practitioners from Europe and Southern Africa

24-25 November 2008 - Oxford, UK

Sponsors: University of Oxford – Centre for the Environment, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, DIVERSITAS, EU, the Global Water Systems Project (GWSP), NeWater project

This meeting was held to provide a forum for an international exchange of views on the subject of the functionality and value of wetlands and aquatic ecosystems, in Europe and Southern Africa.

Contact Caroline Sullivan.


International Symposium: Environmental Change, Pathogens and Humans Linkage
11-14 June 2008 – Kyoto, Japan
Sponsors: Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN) - Environmental Diseases Project in collaboration, DIVERSITAS freshwaterBIODIVERSITY
This workshop featured invited speakers on five topics: 1. Environmental alteration by humans, 2. Ecology of pathogens and their hosts, 3. Infection process and ecosystem effects, 4. Economics and culture and 5. Health. The purpose of the workshop is the exchange of information and the encouragement of international collaboration on the subject of environmental alteration by humans and pathogens. More..

Contact: Zen'ichiro Kawabata, Kyoto University, Japan


freshwaterBIODIVERSITY Workshop: “Sustainable Freshwaters: biodiversity, resilience and the value of ecosystem services”
25-28 February 2008 - Seattle, USA

Sponsors: DIVERSITAS, US National Science Foundation (BestNet)
The purpose of the workshop was to deliver several products:

  1. Provide training capacity by connecting young American researchers (BESTnet Fellows) with top scientists
  2. Develop synthesis papers from the discussions.
  3. Identify future research activities related to the broad theme of “Sustainable Freshwaters”.

The main goal of the workshop was to discuss challenges for sustainable freshwater biodiversity based on a set of introductory presentations:

  1. Status and vulnerability of freshwater biodiversity (D Dudgeon & K Martens)
  2. Connecting freshwater biodiversity to ecosystem processes (M Gessner)
  3. Conservation challenges in the global Great Lakes (P McIntyre)
  4. Stoichiometric links between consumer diversity and ecosystem processes (J Hood)
  5. Sustaining freshwater biodiversity: environmental flows (A Arthington)
  6. Linking research on flow alteration and biodiversity at the global scale (C Reidy Liermann)
  7. Sediment flows as vectors of vitality and biocomplexity to riparian ecosystems (J S Bechtold)
  8. Considering the value of valuation (C Sullivan, J O’Keeffe & D Knowler)
  9. Application of biodiversity/ecological knowledge to solve conservation problems (M McClain)

This workshop represented the starting point of the project "Global threats to freshwater biodiversity" as well as of future activities on the topic of freshwater ecosystem functioning.

Contact: Robert Naiman, University of Washington, USA

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