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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2018

A patchy continuum? Stream processes show varied responses to patch- and continuum-based analyses

Collins, Sean E.; Matter, Stephen F.; Buffam, Ishi; Flotemersch, Joseph E.


Many conceptual syntheses in ecology and evolution are undergirded by either a patch- or continuum-based model. Examples include gradualism and punctuated equilibrium in evolution, and edge effects and the theory of island biogeography in ecology. In this study, we sought to determine how patch- or continuum-based analyses could explain variation in concentrations of stream macronutrients and system metabolism, represented by measures of productivity and respiration rates, at the watershed scale across the Kanawha River Basin, USA. Using Strahler stream order (SSO; continuum) and functional process zone (FPZ; patch) as factors, we produced statistical models for each variable and compared model performance using likelihood ratio tests. Only one nutrient (i.e., PO43-) responded better to patch-based analysis. Both models were significantly better than a null model for ecosystem respiration; however, neither outperformed the other. Importantly, in most cases, a combination model, including both SSO and FPZ, best described observed variation in the system. Our findings suggest that several patch- and continuum-based processes may simultaneously influence the concentration of macronutrients and system metabolism. Nutrient spiraling along a continuum and the patch mosaic of land cover may both alter macronutrients, for example. Similarly, increases in temperature and discharge associated with increasing SSO, as well as the differences in light availability and channel morphology associated with different FPZs, may influence system metabolism. For these reasons, we recommend a combination of patch- and continuum-based analyses when modeling, analyzing, and interpreting patterns in stream ecosystem parameters.


ecosystem metabolism; functional process zone; Kanawha River; macronutrient concentration; nitrate; phosphate; River Continuum Concept; Riverine Ecosystem Synthesis; stream order; watershed

Published in

2018, Volume: 9, number: 11, article number: e02481
Publisher: WILEY

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