Linking Community Structure and Ecosystem Function in Aquatic Ecosystems Degraded by Mountaintop Mining

EPA Grant Number: FP917510
Title: Linking Community Structure and Ecosystem Function in Aquatic Ecosystems Degraded by Mountaintop Mining
Investigators: Voss, Kristofor Anson
Institution: Duke University
EPA Project Officer: Jones, Brandon
Project Period: September 1, 2012 through August 31, 2015
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2012) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Aquatic Ecology


Freshwater macroinvertebrates respond so consistently to land-cover disturbance gradients that environmental managers regularly use them to assess the ecological status of lakes and rivers. Although the predictable loss of sensitive aquatic macroinvertebrates can indicate environmental degradation, far fewer efforts have linked the losses of individual taxa and the traits they possess to the functional consequences these losses impose on ecosystem properties and processes. To make this link requires increased attention to the functional traits and trophic position of individual taxa that change in abundance along disturbance gradients. By fulfilling this goal, the mechanisms can be described behind communitylevel responses to disturbance, determine whether taxa are unique or redundant community members and quantify the relevance of trait loss to the flow of energy and nutrients through the community.


To accomplish the research objectives, an approach that combines statistical analyses of compiled benthic macroinvertebrate data from Central Appalachia with field and experimental studies in a focus watershed will be used. First, compiled datasets will be analyzed using Bayesian hierarchical models to assess how the ecological trait composition of the macroinvertebrate community changes along a gradient of mining activity. Secondly, the functional consequences of trait shifts will be determined using an in-depth field study that compares macroinvertebrate secondary production in streams affected and unaffected by mountaintop removal mining. Finally, a synoptic study of chemically stranded headwaters will be employed to assess whether downstream chemical pollution can shape the aquatic communities in headwaters.

Expected Results:

The Clean Water Act and its subsequent amendments recognize the importance of protecting biological integrity, a concept synonymous with preserving structure and function within lotic ecosystems. This research will improve current taxonomically based risk assessment models, identify the specific effects of mountaintop mining on macroinvertebrate trait composition, follow those effects up the food chain by linking macroinvertebrate community shifts to higher trophic levels, and evaluate the effects of chemical isolation—a hitherto underexplored consequence of mountaintop removal mining and other land use changes—on aquatic communities.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

This research will fill an important gap in the understanding of the relationship between the structure of the ubiquitously monitored macroinvertebrate assemblage and important functions that this assemblage supports. Such basic research is necessary to quantify the relationship between biodiversity loss and stream ecosystem function within the broader context of ecosystem service cascades on which humans rely.

Supplemental Keywords:

benthic macroinvertebrate, ecosystem function, mountaintop removal mining