Freshwater ecosystem.
Freshwater ecosystem.

Freshwater ecosystems are a subset of Earth's aquatic ecosystems. They include lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, springs, bogs, and wetlands.[1] They can be contrasted with marine ecosystems, which have a larger salt content. Freshwater habitats can be classified by different factors, including temperature, light penetration, nutrients, and vegetation. There are three basic types of freshwater ecosystems: Lentic (slow moving water, including pools, ponds, and lakes), lotic (faster moving water, for example streams and rivers) and wetlands (areas where the soil is saturated or inundated for at least part of the time).[2][1] Freshwater ecosystems contain 41% of the world's known fish species.[3]

Freshwater ecosystems have undergone substantial transformations over time, which has impacted various characteristics of the ecosystems.[4] Original attempts to understand and monitor freshwater ecosystems were spurred on by threats to human health (for example cholera outbreaks due to sewage contamination).[5] Early monitoring focused on chemical indicators, then bacteria, and finally algae, fungi and protozoa. A new type of monitoring involves quantifying differing groups of organisms (macroinvertebrates, macrophytes and fish) and measuring the stream conditions associated with them.[6] Threats to freshwater biodiversity include overexploitation, water pollution, flow modification, destruction or degradation of habitat, and invasion by exotic species.[7]

Limnology (and its branch freshwater biology) is a study about freshwater ecosystems.[1]


There are three basic types of freshwater ecosystems: Lentic (slow moving water, including pools, ponds, and lakes), lotic (faster moving water, for example streams and rivers) and wetlands (areas where the soil is saturated or inundated for at least part of the time).

Lentic ecosystems (lakes)

The three primary zones of a lake
The three primary zones of a lake

A lake ecosystem or lacustrine ecosystem includes biotic (living) plants, animals and micro-organisms, as well as abiotic (non-living) physical and chemical interactions.[8] Lake ecosystems are a prime example of lentic ecosystems (lentic refers to stationary or relatively still freshwater, from the Latin lentus, which means "sluggish"), which include ponds, lakes and wetlands, and much of this article applies to lentic ecosystems in general. Lentic ecosystems can be compared with lotic ecosystems, which involve flowing terrestrial waters such as rivers and streams. Together, these two ecosystems are examples of freshwater ecosystems.

Lentic systems are diverse, ranging from a small, temporary rainwater pool a few inches deep to Lake Baikal, which has a maximum depth of 1642 m.[9] The general distinction between pools/ponds and lakes is vague, but Brown[8] states that ponds and pools have their entire bottom surfaces exposed to light, while lakes do not. In addition, some lakes become seasonally stratified. Ponds and pools have two regions: the pelagic open water zone, and the benthic zone, which comprises the bottom and shore regions. Since lakes have deep bottom regions not exposed to light, these systems have an additional zone, the profundal.[10] These three areas can have very different abiotic conditions and, hence, host species that are specifically adapted to live there.[8]

Lotic ecosystems (rivers)

This stream in the Redwood National and State Parks together with its environment can be thought of as forming a river ecosystem.
This stream in the Redwood National and State Parks together with its environment can be thought of as forming a river ecosystem.

River ecosystems are flowing waters that drain the landscape, and include the biotic (living) interactions amongst plants, animals and micro-organisms, as well as abiotic (nonliving) physical and chemical interactions of its many parts.[11][12] River ecosystems are part of larger watershed networks or catchments, where smaller headwater streams drain into mid-size streams, which progressively drain into larger river networks. The major zones in river ecosystems are determined by the river bed's gradient or by the velocity of the current. Faster moving turbulent water typically contains greater concentrations of dissolved oxygen, which supports greater biodiversity than the slow-moving water of pools. These distinctions form the basis for the division of rivers into upland and lowland rivers.

The following unifying characteristics make the ecology of running waters unique among aquatic habitats: the flow is unidirectional, there is a state of continuous physical change, there is a high degree of spatial and temporal heterogeneity at all scales (microhabitats), the variability between lotic systems is quite high and the biota is specialized to live with flow conditions.[13]

The food base of streams within riparian forests is mostly derived from the trees, but wider streams and those that lack a canopy derive the majority of their food base from algae. Anadromous fish are also an important source of nutrients. Environmental threats to rivers include loss of water, dams, chemical pollution and introduced species.[14] A dam produces negative effects that continue down the watershed. The most important negative effects are the reduction of spring flooding, which damages wetlands, and the retention of sediment, which leads to loss of deltaic wetlands.[15]


Upland vs. wetland vs. lacustrine zones
Upland vs. wetland vs. lacustrine zones
Freshwater swamp forest in Bangladesh
Freshwater swamp forest in Bangladesh
Peat bogs are freshwater wetlands that develop in areas with standing water and low soil fertility.
Peat bogs are freshwater wetlands that develop in areas with standing water and low soil fertility.
A water control structure gauge in a wetland
A water control structure gauge in a wetland

A wetland is a distinct ecosystem that is flooded by water, either permanently or seasonally, where oxygen-free processes prevail.[16] The primary factor that distinguishes wetlands from other land forms or water bodies is the characteristic vegetation of aquatic plants,[17][18] adapted to the unique hydric soil. Wetlands play a number of functions, including water purification, water storage, processing of carbon and other nutrients, stabilization of shorelines, and support of plants and animals.[19] Wetlands are also considered the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems, serving as home to a wide range of plant and animal life. Whether any individual wetland performs these functions, and the degree to which it performs them, depends on characteristics of that wetland and the lands and waters near it.[20] Methods for rapidly assessing these functions, wetland ecological health, and general wetland condition have been developed in many regions and have contributed to wetland conservation partly by raising public awareness of the functions and the ecosystem services some wetlands provide.[20][21]

Wetlands occur naturally on every continent.[22] The water in wetlands is either freshwater, brackish, or saltwater.[18] The main wetland types are swamp, marsh, bog, and fen; sub-types include mangrove forest, carr, pocosin, floodplains,[16] mire, vernal pool, sink, and many others.[23] Many peatlands are wetlands. Wetlands can be tidal (inundated by tides) or non-tidal.[24] The largest wetlands include the Amazon River basin, the West Siberian Plain,[25] the Pantanal in South America,[26] and the Sundarbans in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta.[27]

Human uses of wetlands include water storage (flood control), groundwater replenishment, shoreline stabilization and storm protection, water purification, wastewater treatment in constructed wetlands, reservoirs of biodiversity, wetland products and productivity, climate change mitigation and adaptation. Constructed wetlands are used to treat municipal and industrial wastewater as well as stormwater runoff. They may also play a role in water-sensitive urban design.


Further information: Lake ecosystem § Human impacts, River ecosystem § Human impacts, and Ecosystem § Human interactions with ecosystems

Five broad threats to freshwater biodiversity include overexploitation, water pollution, flow modification, destruction or degradation of habitat, and invasion by exotic species.[7] Recent extinction trends can be attributed largely to sedimentation, stream fragmentation, chemical and organic pollutants, dams, and invasive species.[28] Common chemical stresses on freshwater ecosystem health include acidification, eutrophication and copper and pesticide contamination.[29] Unpredictable synergies with climate change greatly complicate the impacts of other stressors that threaten many marine and freshwater fishes.[30]

Freshwater biodiversity faces many threats.[31] The World Wide Fund for Nature's Living Planet Index noted an 83% decline in the populations of freshwater vertebrates between 1970 and 2014.[32] These declines continue to outpace contemporaneous declines in marine or terrestrial systems. The causes of these declines are related to:[33][31]

  1. A rapidly changing climate
  2. Online wildlife trade and invasive species
  3. Infectious disease
  4. Toxic algae blooms
  5. Hydropower damming and fragmenting of half the world's rivers
  6. Emerging contaminants, such as hormones
  7. Engineered nanomaterials
  8. Microplastic pollution
  9. Light and noise interference
  10. Saltier coastal freshwaters due to sea level rise
  11. Calcium concentrations falling below the needs of some freshwater organisms
  12. The additive—and possibly synergistic—effects of these threats

Extinction of freshwater fauna

Over 123 freshwater fauna species have gone extinct in North America since 1900. Of North American freshwater species, an estimated 48.5% of mussels, 22.8% of gastropods, 32.7% of crayfishes, 25.9% of amphibians, and 21.2% of fish are either endangered or threatened.[28] Extinction rates of many species may increase severely into the next century because of invasive species, loss of keystone species, and species which are already functionally extinct (e.g., species which are not reproducing).[28] Even using conservative estimates, freshwater fish extinction rates in North America are 877 times higher than background extinction rates (1 in 3,000,000 years).[34] Projected extinction rates for freshwater animals are around five times greater than for land animals, and are comparable to the rates for rainforest communities.[28] Given the dire state of freshwater biodiversity, a team of scientists and practitioners from around the globe recently drafted an Emergency Action plan to try and restore freshwater biodiversity.[35]

Bio Current freshwater biomonitoring techniques focus primarily on community structure, but some programs measure functional indicators like biochemical (or biological) oxygen demand, sediment oxygen demand, and dissolved oxygen.[6] Macroinvertebrate community structure is commonly monitored because of the diverse taxonomy, ease of collection, sensitivity to a range of stressors, and overall value to the ecosystem.[36] Additionally, algal community structure (often using diatoms) is measured in biomonitoring programs. Algae are also taxonomically diverse, easily collected, sensitive to a range of stressors, and overall valuable to the ecosystem.[37] Algae grow very quickly and communities may represent fast changes in environmental conditions.[37]

In addition to community structure, responses to freshwater stressors are investigated by experimental studies that measure organism behavioural changes, altered rates of growth, reproduction or mortality.[6] Experimental results on single species under controlled conditions may not always reflect natural conditions and multi-species communities.[6]

The use of reference sites is common when defining the idealized "health" of a freshwater ecosystem. Reference sites can be selected spatially by choosing sites with minimal impacts from human disturbance and influence.[6] However, reference conditions may also be established temporally by using preserved indicators such as diatom valves, macrophyte pollen, insect chitin and fish scales can be used to determine conditions prior to large scale human disturbance.[6] These temporal reference conditions are often easier to reconstruct in standing water than moving water because stable sediments can better preserve biological indicator materials.

See also


  1. ^ a b c G., Wetzel, Robert (2001). Limnology : lake and river ecosystems (3rd ed.). San Diego: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0127447605. OCLC 46393244.
  2. ^ Vaccari, David A. (8 November 2005). Environmental Biology for Engineers and Scientists. Wiley-Interscience. ISBN 0-471-74178-7.
  3. ^ Daily, Gretchen C. (1 February 1997). Nature's Services. Island Press. ISBN 1-55963-476-6.
  4. ^ Carpenter, Stephen R.; Stanley, Emily H.; Vander Zanden, M. Jake (2011). "State of the World's Freshwater Ecosystems: Physical, Chemical, and Biological Changes". Annual Review of Environment and Resources. 36 (1): 75–99. doi:10.1146/annurev-environ-021810-094524. ISSN 1543-5938.
  5. ^ Rudolfs, Willem; Falk, Lloyd L.; Ragotzkie, R. A. (1950). "Literature Review on the Occurrence and Survival of Enteric, Pathogenic, and Relative Organisms in Soil, Water, Sewage, and Sludges, and on Vegetation: I. Bacterial and Virus Diseases". Sewage and Industrial Wastes. 22 (10): 1261–1281. JSTOR 25031419.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Friberg, Nikolai; Bonada, Núria; Bradley, David C.; Dunbar, Michael J.; Edwards, Francois K.; Grey, Jonathan; Hayes, Richard B.; Hildrew, Alan G.; Lamouroux, Nicolas (2011), "Biomonitoring of Human Impacts in Freshwater Ecosystems", Advances in Ecological Research, Elsevier, pp. 1–68, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-374794-5.00001-8, ISBN 9780123747945
  7. ^ a b Dudgeon, David; Arthington, Angela H.; Gessner, Mark O.; Kawabata, Zen-Ichiro; Knowler, Duncan J.; Lévêque, Christian; Naiman, Robert J.; Prieur-Richard, Anne-Hélène; Soto, Doris (2005-12-12). "Freshwater biodiversity: importance, threats, status and conservation challenges". Biological Reviews. 81 (2): 163–82. CiteSeerX doi:10.1017/s1464793105006950. ISSN 1464-7931. PMID 16336747. S2CID 15921269.
  8. ^ a b c Brown, A. L. (1987). Freshwater Ecology. Heinimann Educational Books, London. p. 163. ISBN 0435606220.
  9. ^ Brönmark, C.; L. A. Hansson (2005). The Biology of Lakes and Ponds. Oxford University Press, Oxford. p. 285. ISBN 0198516134.
  10. ^ Kalff, J. (2002). Limnology. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle, NJ. p. 592. ISBN 0130337757.
  11. ^ Angelier, E. 2003. Ecology of Streams and Rivers. Science Publishers, Inc., Enfield. Pp. 215.
  12. ^ ”Biology Concepts & Connections Sixth Edition”, Campbell, Neil A. (2009), page 2, 3 and G-9. Retrieved 2010-06-14.
  13. ^ Giller, S. and B. Malmqvist. 1998. The Biology of Streams and Rivers. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Pp. 296.
  14. ^ Alexander, David E. (1 May 1999). Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Springer. ISBN 0-412-74050-8.
  15. ^ Keddy, Paul A. (2010). Wetland Ecology. Principles and Conservation. Cambridge University Press. p. 497. ISBN 978-0-521-51940-3.
  16. ^ a b Keddy, P.A. (2010). Wetland ecology : principles and conservation (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521519403. [1]
  17. ^ Butler, S., ed. (2010). Macquarie Concise Dictionary (5th ed.). Sydney, Australia: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers. ISBN 978-1-876429-85-0.
  18. ^ a b "Official page of the Ramsar Convention". Retrieved 2011-09-25.
  19. ^ "Wetlands". USDA- Natural Resource Conservation Center.
  20. ^ a b Dorney, J.; Savage, R.; Adamus, P.; Tiner, R., eds. (2018). Wetland and Stream Rapid Assessments: Development, Validation, and Application. London; San Diego, CA: Academic Press. ISBN 978-0-12-805091-0. OCLC 1017607532.
  21. ^ Hollis, T.; Bedding, J. (1994). "Can we stop the wetlands from drying up?". New Scientist.
  22. ^ Davidson, N.C. (2014). "How much wetland has the world lost? Long-term and recent trends in global wetland area". Marine and Freshwater Research. 65 (10): 934–941. doi:10.1071/MF14173. S2CID 85617334.
  23. ^
  24. ^ "US EPA". 2015-09-18. Retrieved 2011-09-25.
  25. ^ Fraser, L.; Keddy, P.A., eds. (2005). The World's Largest Wetlands: Their Ecology and Conservation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521834049.
  26. ^ "WWF Pantanal Programme". Retrieved 2011-09-25.
  27. ^ Giri, C.; Pengra, B.; Zhu, Z.; Singh, A.; Tieszen, L.L. (2007). "Monitoring mangrove forest dynamics of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India using multi-temporal satellite data from 1973 to 2000". Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. 73 (1–2): 91–100. Bibcode:2007ECSS...73...91G. doi:10.1016/j.ecss.2006.12.019.
  28. ^ a b c d Ricciardi, Anthony; Rasmussen, Joseph B. (1999-10-23). "Extinction Rates of North American Freshwater Fauna". Conservation Biology. 13 (5): 1220–1222. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.1999.98380.x. ISSN 0888-8892.
  29. ^ Xu, F (September 2001). "Lake Ecosystem Health Assessment: Indicators and Methods". Water Research. 35 (13): 3157–3167. doi:10.1016/s0043-1354(01)00040-9. ISSN 0043-1354. PMID 11487113.
  30. ^ Arthington, Angela H.; Dulvy, Nicholas K.; Gladstone, William; Winfield, Ian J. (2016). "Fish conservation in freshwater and marine realms: status, threats and management". Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. 26 (5): 838–857. doi:10.1002/aqc.2712. ISSN 1099-0755.
  31. ^ a b Reid, AJ; et al. (2019). "Emerging threats and persistent conservation challenges for freshwater biodiversity". Biological Reviews. 94 (3): 849–873. doi:10.1111/brv.12480. PMID 30467930.
  32. ^ "Living Planet Report 2018 | WWF". Retrieved 2019-04-09.
  33. ^ Reid, Andrea Jane; Cooke, Steven J. "Freshwater wildlife face an uncertain future". The Conversation. Retrieved 2019-04-09.
  34. ^ Burkhead, Noel M. (September 2012). "Extinction Rates in North American Freshwater Fishes, 1900–2010". BioScience. 62 (9): 798–808. doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.9.5. ISSN 1525-3244.
  35. ^ Tickner, David; Opperman, Jeffrey J; Abell, Robin; Acreman, Mike; Arthington, Angela H; Bunn, Stuart E; Cooke, Steven J; Dalton, James; Darwall, Will; Edwards, Gavin; Harrison, Ian (2020-04-01). "Bending the Curve of Global Freshwater Biodiversity Loss: An Emergency Recovery Plan". BioScience. 70 (4): 330–342. doi:10.1093/biosci/biaa002. ISSN 0006-3568. PMC 7138689.
  36. ^ Johnson, R. K.; Wiederholm, T.; Rosenberg, D. M. (1993). Freshwater biomonitoring and benthic macroinvertebrates, 40-158. pp. 40–158.
  37. ^ a b Stevenson, R. Jan; Smol, John P. (2003), "Use of Algae in Environmental Assessments", Freshwater Algae of North America, Elsevier, pp. 775–804, doi:10.1016/b978-012741550-5/50024-6, ISBN 9780127415505