Comparative use of side and main channels by small-bodied fish in a large, unimpounded river
Ann Marie Reinhold, Robert G Bramblett, Alexander V Zale, David W Roberts, Geoffrey C Poole
1. Ecological theory and field studies suggest that lateral floodplain connectivity and habitat heterogeneity provided by side channels impart favourable habitat conditions for lotic fishes, especially fluvial fishes dependent on large patches of shallow, slow velocity habitats for some portion of their life cycle. However, anthropogenic modification of large, temperate floodplain rivers has led to extensive channel simplification and side-channel loss. Highly modified rivers consist of simplified channels in contracted, less dynamic floodplains. 2. Most research examining the seasonal importance of side channels for fish assemblages in large rivers has been carried out in heavily modified rivers, where side-channel extents are substantially reduced from pre-settlement times, and has often overlooked small-bodied fishes. Inferences about the ecological importance of side channels for small-bodied fishes in large rivers can be ascertained only from investigations of large rivers with largely intact floodplains. The Yellowstone River, our study area, is a rare example of one such river. 3. We targeted small-bodied fishes and compared their habitat use in side and main channels in two geomorphically distinct types of river bends during early and late snowmelt runoff, and autumn base flow. Species compositions of side and main channels differed throughout hydroperiods concurrent with the seasonal redistribution of the availability of shallow, slow current-velocity habitats. More species of fish used side channels than main channels during runoff. Additionally, catch rates of small fishes were generally greater in side channels than in main channels and quantitative assemblage compositions differed between channel types during runoff, but not during base flow. Presence of and access to diverse habitats facilitated the development and persistence of diverse fish assemblages in our study area. 4. Physical dissimilarities between side and main channels may have differentially structured the side- and main-channel fish assemblages during runoff. Patches of shallow, slow current-velocity (SSCV) habitats in side channels were larger and had slightly slower water velocities than SSCV habitat patches in main channels during runoff, but not during base flow. 5. Our findings establish a baseline importance of side channels to riverine fishes in a large, temperate river without heavy anthropogenic modification. Establishing this baseline contributes to basic fluvial ecology and provides empirical justification for restoration efforts that reconnect large rivers with their floodplains.
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