Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Disentangling the effects of low pH and metal mixture toxicity on macroinvertebrate diversity

April 3, 2018

One of the primary goals of biological assessment of streams is to identify which of a suite of chemical stressors is limiting their ecological potential. Elevated metal concentrations in streams are often associated with low pH, yet the effects of these two potentially limiting factors of freshwater biodiversity are rarely considered to interact beyond the effects of pH on metal speciation. Using a dataset from two continents, a biogeochemical model of the toxicity of metal mixtures (Al, Cd, Cu, Pb, Zn) and quantile regression, we addressed the relative importance of both pH and metals as limiting factors for macroinvertebrate communities. Current environmental quality standards for metals proved to be protective of stream macroinvertebrate communities and were used as a starting point to assess metal mixture toxicity. A model of metal mixture toxicity accounting for metal interactions was a better predictor of macroinvertebrate responses than a model considering individual metal toxicity. We showed that the direct limiting effect of pH on richness was of the same magnitude as that of chronic metal toxicity, independent of its influence on the availability and toxicity of metals. By accounting for the direct effect of pH on macroinvertebrate communities, we were able to determine that acidic streams supported less diverse communities than neutral streams even when metals were below no-effect thresholds. Through a multivariate quantile model, we untangled the limiting effect of both pH and metals and predicted the maximum diversity that could be expected at other sites as a function of these variables. This model can be used to identify which of the two stressors is more limiting to the ecological potential of running waters.