Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Have We Been Missing a Hidden Haven of Biodiversity?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Have We Been Missing a Hidden Haven of Biodiversity?

Article excerpt

If someone asked you to list the most important kinds of ecosystem for the preservation of biodiversity, what would you say? Rainforests? Coral reefs? Wetlands?

Whatever your answer, there is one that may have slipped your mind: gravel-bed rivers. And, according to a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances, they should probably join that list.

In considering these broad valleys that sweep from glaciated mountains the world over, the multidisciplinary team of experts, based mainly out of the University of Montana, determined that their importance in supporting a multitude of different organisms is far more substantial than their size would imply.

"A little over a year ago, in Feb. 2015, I brought together a very select group of people representing fisheries, amphibians, avian populations, big ungulate-wolf interactions, and grizzly bears," lead author Ric Hauer, director of the University of Montana's Center for Integrated Research on the Environment (CIRE), tells The Christian Science Monitor in a telephone interview.

What they found was that these gravel-bed river floodplain systems, which cover only 3 percent of the landscape in inner- mountain North America, are "by far the most important feature" in the region.

Take birds. About 240 bird species make their home in the rugged "Yellowstone to Yukon" portion of the Rocky Mountains, a region that stretches from Montana to northern Canada. Of them, more than 200 - greater than 80 percent - are directly reliant on having a viable gravel-bed river system to survive, with roughly 100 actually nesting and rearing their young in that ecosystem.

Amphibians were also found to be thriving. One of the defining characteristics of this class of vertebrate, as coauthor Winsor Lowe explains to the Monitor in a phone interview, is their need for both freshwater and terrestrial habitats (though there are a few outliers who have adapted to exist exclusively in one). With regard to the aquatic areas they inhabit, amphibians tend to be quite choosy.

"In these gravel-bed rivers, you can have the full gradient of aquatic ecosystems that amphibians rely on," says Dr. Lowe, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Montana. …

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