Aquatic Ecosystems

Our group studies the response of ecological systems at the level of individual genes, individual organisms, populations, and communities, up to whole food webs and functional processes such as decomposition and whole-ecosystem metabolism. We have particular strengths in the ecology of freshwater invertebrates but also have expertise with algal communities, microbes (fungi, bacteria) and fish.

Freshwaters are particularly diverse systems, containing a disproportionately high level of biodiversity compared with the area of Earth's surface covered by rivers, lakes and ponds. We study these groups because they are also disproportionately at risk of damage through land use change (such as agriculture, forestry or urbanisation) as well as extreme events (floods, droughts, wildfire) and ongoing climate change. Conversely, they can be used as indicators of the effects of stressors such as pollution, or to track recovery of ecosystems following interventions such as ecosystem restoration.

Our aquatic ecology research includes work led by Professor Lee Brown which looks at how Arctic and alpine rivers are responding to the loss of glaciers due to climate change. This work has shown that some cold-adapted species are at risk of extinction with continued glacier retreat, and has influenced reports written by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Work by Dr Megan Klaar in collaboration with the Environment Agency examines the influence of water abstractions on river flows and their knock-on effects on invertebrate and fish communities, with the aim of redesigning abstraction licensing to protect aquatic ecosystems whilst enabling society to abstract enough water for agriculture and drinking water. Professor Lee Brown and Dr Megan Klaar are also leaders of an EU project Euro-FLOW  which is training future scientists in aquatic science to inform the management of water flows and aquatic ecosystems in river basins.

Our group has also developed expertise in understanding the effects of land management (such as vegetation burning) on rivers and ponds in the UK uplands which has informed Westminster parliamentary debates.

Our research is undertaken in collaboration with a range of partners, in particular Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, JBA Trust and the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIWA) . Through the Euro-FLOW project we have strong collaborative links with nine universities/research centres around Europe, as well as 13 non-academic partners.

Contact us

If you would like to discuss an area of research in more detail please contact Professor Lee Brown