Interactions among hydrology and geomorphology create shifting mosaics of aquatic habitat patches in large river floodplains (e.g., main and side channels, floodplain lakes, and shallow backwater areas) and the connectivity among these habitat patches underpins high levels of biotic diversity and productivity. However, the diversity and connectivity among the habitats of most floodplain rivers have been negatively impacted by hydrologic and structural modifications that support commercial navigation and control flooding. We therefore tested the hypothesis that the rate of increase in patch richness (# of types) with increasing scale reflects anthropogenic modifications to habitat diversity and connectivity in a large floodplain river, the Upper Mississippi River (UMR). To do this, we calculated the number of aquatic habitat patch types within neighborhoods surrounding each of the ≈19 million 5-m aquatic pixels of the UMR for multiple neighborhood sizes (1–100 ha). For all of the 87 river-reach focal areas we examined, changes in habitat richness (R) with increasing neighborhood length (L, # pixels) were characterized by a fractal-like power function R = Lz (R2 > 0.92 (P < 0.05)). The scaling exponent (z) measures the rate of increase in habitat richness with neighborhood size and is related to a fractal dimension. Variation in z reflected fundamental changes to spatial patterns of aquatic habitat richness in this river system. With only a few exceptions, z exceeded the river-wide average of 0.18 in focal areas where side channels, contiguous floodplain lakes, and contiguous shallow-water areas exceeded 5%, 5%, and 10% of the floodplain respectively. In contrast, z was always less than 0.18 for focal areas where impounded water exceeded 40% of floodplain area. Our results suggest that rehabilitation efforts that target areas with <5% of the floodplain in side channels, <5% in floodplain lakes, and/or <10% in shallow-water areas could improve habitat diversity across multiple scales in the UMR.
Additional publication details
Spatial patterns of aquatic habitat richness in the Upper Mississippi River floodplain, USA