Evaluating anthropogenic impacts on naturally stressed ecosystems: Revisiting river classifications and biomonitoring metrics along salinity gradients

Luigi Naselli Flores, Nard Bennas, Cayetano Gutiérrez-Cánovas, Paula Arribas, Marta Finocchiaro, Andrés Millán, Josefa Velasco

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Naturally stressed ecosystems hold a unique fraction of biodiversity. However, they have been largely ignored in biomonitoring and conservation programmes, such as the EU Water Framework Directive, while global change pressures are threatening their singular values. Here we present a framework to classify and evaluate the ecological quality of naturally stressed rivers along a water salinity gradient. We gathered datasets, including aquatic macroinvertebrate assemblages and environmental information, for 243 river locations across the western Mediterranean to: a) gauge the role of natural stressors (salinity) in driving aquatic community richness and composition; b) make river classifications by encompassing the wide range of environmental and biological variation exhibited by Mediterranean rivers; c) provide effective biomonitoring metrics of ecological quality for saline rivers. Our results showed that water salinity played a pivotal role in explaining the community richness and compositional changes in rivers, even when considering other key and commonly used descriptors, such as elevation, climate or lithology. Both environmental and biologically-based classifications included seven river types: three types of freshwater perennial rivers, one freshwater intermittent river type and three new saline river types. These new saline types were not included in previous classifications. Their validation by independent datasets showed that the saline and freshwater river types represented differentiable macroinvertebrate assemblages at family and species levels. Biomonitoring metrics based on the abundance of indicator taxa of each saline river type provided a much better assessment of the ecological quality of saline rivers than other widely used biological metrics and indices. Here we demonstrate that considering natural stressors, such as water salinity, is essential to design effective and accurate biomonitoring programmes for rivers and to preserve their unique biodiversity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)912-921
Number of pages10
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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