Mapping the global impact of shrinking glaciers on river invertebrates

River invertebrates react the same way to decreasing glacier cover wherever in the world they are, say scientists.

The scientists have evaluated more than one million river invertebrates in diverse regions with shrinking glaciers, in order to determine the impact of global environment change. 

Their findings, published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution, indicate that there is a globally consistent pattern in the way river invertebrates respond to decreasing glacier cover. It highlights the possibility of applying a similar method to track environmental impacts on invertebrate groups in other types of ecosystems. 

Lead author Professor Lee Brown, from the School of Geography and water@leeds at the University of Leeds, said: “By combining river invertebrate records from all over the world, we are able to map functional traits shared by species, such as body size, movement, life cycle length and eating habits. 

“So while New Zealand does not have the exact same river invertebrate species as the USA, those species that are present in each location possess similar functional traits. 

“Because traits determine how species respond to changes in the environment, we can chart the effect of environmental change on functional traits and thus understand the impact on river invertebrate communities worldwide.” 

Invertebrates account for nearly 95% of the animal species on Earth. They perform important key ecological roles such as maintaining soil fertility, carbon cycling and water purification

The team combined data on river invertebrates collected from over 170 sites in nine different mountain ranges — spanning across three continents and both hemispheres. By examining invertebrates from glacier-fed rivers the researchers were able to ensure that the effects on functional traits would be due largely to environmental change caused by glacier shrinking as opposed to human-made impacts, because these study regions are often more pristine than other river ecosystems. 

Co-author Dr Martin Wilkes, from Coventry University, explained: “This study allows us to see how functional traits influence species adaption to the changing environment. For example, as glaciers shrink we see that invertebrate responses are strongly influenced by whether they can easily migrate to and thrive in a new location. 

“Under scenarios of rapid future environmental change such as global glacier retreat, organisms which are only able to migrate short-distances might not keep pace with habitat shifts — leading to major changes in these aquatic ecosystems.” 

By combining river invertebrate records from all over the world, we are able to map functional traits shared by species, such as body size, movement, life cycle length and eating habits

Professor Brown added: “Invertebrates account for nearly 95% of the animal species on Earth. They perform important key ecological roles such as maintaining soil fertility, carbon cycling and water purification. Understanding invertebrate functional responses to environmental change is of urgent importance to reduce the threat of extinctions and changes to major ecosystem functions. 

“Our results highlight the potential to use trait-based approaches to predict the impact of environmental change on invertebrates such as those that live in other ecosystems, such as the oceans, soils or even in cities.” 

Further information

The research paper Functional diversity and community assembly of river invertebrates show globally consistent responses to decreasing glacier cover will appear on Nature Ecology & Evolution's website on 18 December 2017 (DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0426-x

For additional information and to request interviews please contact Anna Harrison, Press Officer at the University of Leeds, on +44 (0)113 34 34196 or a.harrison(at) 

This work was funded by the following organizations: the UK Natural Environment Research Council grants and studentships GR9/2913, NE/E003729/1, NE/E004539/1, NE/E004148/1, NE/G523963/1, NER/S/A/2003/11192 and NE/L002574/1; the European Union Environment and Climate Programme Arctic and Alpine Stream Ecosystem Research (AASER) project (ENV-CT95-0164); EU-FP7 Assessing Climate impacts on the Quality and quantity of WAter (ACQWA) project (212250); the Icelandic Research Council (954890095, 954890096); the University of Iceland Research Fund (GMG96, GMG97, GMG98), Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics-National Science Foundation (1208909); USA-Wyoming NASA Space Grant Faculty Research Initiation (NNX10A095H); USA-NSF Wyoming Epscor; Nationalpark Hohe Tauern, Austria; the Royal Society (International Outgoing Grant 2006/R4); the Leverhulme Trust; the Universities of Leeds, Birmingham, Iceland and Innsbruck; the European Centre for Arctic Environmental Research (ARCFAC): a Research Infrastructures Action of the European Community FP6 (026129-2008-72); the Stelvio National Park (2000–2001); the Autonomous Province of Trento (HIGHEST project, 2001–2004, del. PAT no. 1060/2001; VETTA project, 2003–2006, del. PAT no. 3402/2002); MUSE-Museo delle Scienze 

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