Characterization of spatial and environmental influences on stream diatoms and cyanobacteria

TitleCharacterization of spatial and environmental influences on stream diatoms and cyanobacteria
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication2020
AuthorsSchulte, NO, McKnight, DM
Academic DepartmentEnvironmental Studies
Date Published2020
UniversityUniversity of Colorado Boulder
CityBoulder, CO
Thesis Typedoctoral
Keywordsalgae, dispersal, environmental assessment, human disturbance, metacommunity ecology, species distribution models

Primary producing algae form the basis of carbon fixation, oxygen production, and food webs in aquatic ecosystems globally. However, human activities disrupt climate and freshwater physicochemistry. These impacts alter the health of algal communities and the ecosystem services algae provide. Meanwhile, spatial processes like dispersal and landscape characteristics like geology also influence algal structure and function. Diatoms are indicators of stream health and are model organisms for understanding the processes underlying microbial biogeography. Benthic cyanobacteria present risks to human health through the proliferation of toxin-producing blooms. With this dissertation, I investigate the ecosystem processes that influence diatom and cyanobacterial community composition and taxon distributions. My goal is to advance the understanding of ecosystem controls on algal biogeography and to characterize taxon-specific autecology for use in environmental management. First, I measured the extent of wind-mediated dispersal of benthic diatoms across aquatic habitats to better understand how community composition is structured by spatial processes across the McMurdo Dry Valleys polar desert in Antarctica. I found that inter-habitat dispersal is common but less influential on community composition than intra-habitat factors such as environmental conditions. I then used non-linear, multivariable modeling to assess the relative influences of climate, watershed characteristics, and in-stream stressors on the relative abundances of 268 diatom taxa across gradients of human impact in the northeast United States. My results indicate diatom taxa are affected by different suites of environmental conditions but that taxa belong to ecological guilds based on shared responsiveness to environmental factors. Finally, I applied multivariable modeling towards understanding the effects of aquatic stressors, including herbicides and persistent organic pollutants, on the distributions of benthic cyanobacteria across northeast U.S. streams. I found that watershed characteristics, streamflow, and herbicides were more influential than light availability, water temperature, and nutrients on the distributions of potentially toxigenic cyanobacterial genera. Collectively, this research expands the knowledge of how benthic algal communities and taxon distributions are structured at large spatial scales along gradients of unimpacted and human-altered environmental conditions. I provide a novel modeling framework and taxon-specific autecological information that can be applied to environmental assessments of stream health and future algal research.