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Distribution of Benthic Diatoms in U.S. Rivers in Relation to Conductivity and Ionic Composition

Marina G. Potapova and Donald F. Charles

Patrick Center for Environmental Research, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,
1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19103-1195, USA


  1. We quantified relations between diatom relative abundance and water conductivity and ionic composition, using a dataset of 3239 benthic diatom samples collected from 1109 river sites throughout the U.S. (U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program dataset). This dataset provided a unique opportunity to explore the autecology of freshwater diatoms over a broad range of environmental conditions.

  2. Conductivity ranged from 10 to 14,500 mS cm-1, but most of the rivers had moderate conductivity (interquartile range 180 - 618 mS cm-1). Calcium and bicarbonate were the dominant ions. Ionic composition, however, varied greatly due to the influence of natural and anthropogenic factors.

  3. Canonical Correspondence Analysis (CCA) and Monte Carlo permutation tests showed that conductivity, and abundances of major ions (HCO3-+CO32-, Cl-, SO42-, Ca2+, Mg2+-, Na+, K+) all explained a statistically significant amount of the variation in assemblage composition of benthic diatoms. Concentrations of HCO3-+CO32- and Ca2+ were most significant sources of environmental variance.

  4. CCA showed that the gradient of ionic composition explaining most variation in diatom assemblage structure ranged from waters dominated by Ca2+ and HCO3-+CO32- to waters with higher proportions of Na+, K+, and Cl-. CCA also revealed that the distributions of some diatoms correlated strongly with proportions of individual cations and anions, and with the ratio of monovalent to divalent cations.

  5. We present species indicator values (optima) for conductivity, major ions, and proportions of those ions. We also identify diatom taxa characteristic of specific major-ion chemistries. These species optima may be useful in future interpretations of diatom ecology and as indicator values in water-quality assessment.

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