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Biodiversity under threat in glacier-fed river systems

Abstract

Freshwater biodiversity is under threat across the globe1, with climate change being a significant contributor2,3. One impact of climate change is the rapid shrinking of glaciers4, resulting in a reduction in glacial meltwater contribution to river flow in many glacierized catchments5,6. These changes potentially affect the biodiversity of specialized glacier-fed river communities7. Perhaps surprisingly then, although freshwater biodiversity is a major conservation priority3, the effects of shrinkage and disappearance of glaciers on river biodiversity have hitherto been poorly quantified. Here we focus on macroinvertebrates (mainly insect larvae) and demonstrate that local (α) and regional (γ) diversity, as well as turnover among reaches (β-diversity), will be consistently reduced by the shrinkage of glaciers. We show that 11–38% of the regional species pools, including endemics, can be expected to be lost following complete disappearance of glaciers in a catchment, and steady shrinkage is likely to reduce taxon turnover in proglacial river systems and local richness at downstream reaches where glacial cover in the catchment is less than 5–30%. Our analysis demonstrates not only the vulnerability of local biodiversity hotspots but also that extinction will probably greatly exceed the few known endemic species in glacier-fed rivers.

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Figure 1: Accumulated loss of regional species richness (γ diversity) as a function of glacial cover.
Figure 2: Taxon turnover (β diversity) as a function of glacial cover.
Figure 3: Local richness (α diversity) as a function of glacial cover.
Figure 4: Confluence of glacier-fed (left) and spring-fed streams in Ecuador.

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Acknowledgements

We thank M. O. Gessner, K. Swing and J. Casas for constructive and helpful comments on earlier versions of the paper. The financial support by WWF-Novozymes (2008) to D.J., Ecofondo (034-ECO8-inv1) to O.D., Natural Environment Research Council (GR9/2913, NE/E003729/1, NE/E004539/1 and NE/E004148/1), the Royal Society, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), and the Universities of Copenhagen, Birmingham and Leeds is greatly appreciated. Many people participated in the fieldwork and collection of data for the published papers analysed and cited here; we acknowledge the effort of these people and wish to thank them all.

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D.J. and O.D. collected the Ecuadorian data, conceived the study, analysed the data and led the writing of the paper. A.M.M. and L.E.B. collected the Alaska data and contributed to the writing of the manuscript. D.J. and O.D. contributed equally to the study.

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Correspondence to Dean Jacobsen or Olivier Dangles.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Jacobsen, D., Milner, A., Brown, L. et al. Biodiversity under threat in glacier-fed river systems. Nature Clim Change 2, 361–364 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1435

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