Focus on tools for ecological diagnosis and impact prediction

The identification of aquatic organisms using DNA barcode information has accelerated rapidly in recent years. All over the world, scientists are collecting DNA barcodes from a multitude of species and making them available in publicly accessible databases. KWR, together with Aqualab Zuid, Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Royal HaskoningDHV, is researching, within TKI Water Technology, the current ecological diagnostic tools and new developments in this field.

A rapid and reliable identification of organisms living in water allows for the compilation of species lists, which can then be connected to species-specific information in knowledge bases. Such information can include the ecological role played by the species, and their indication value for a variety of water-quality parameters. But apart from the advanced use of DNA barcodes, the results of current morphological analysis of aquatic biodiversity can benefit from an expert system connected to species-specific information. Thus water managers can gain a more rapid and comprehensive understanding of the significance of biodiversity patterns than they have today. This would for instance give them a basis to determine the organisational and management requirements needed to achieve ecological objectives.

Development of tools

To get a clearer picture of the situation today in the field of ecological-diagnostic tools, we examined thirteen of them more closely. We assessed these selected tools, all of which have been available for some time, for their utility in water system analysis. We also looked for – among others, through the STOWA website – other, more recent developments in diagnostic tools. On this basis, we can offer water managers guidance as they direct more attention to the application and further development of such instruments and the system knowledge they embody.

Building blocks for tools

There are as yet no developed and tested tools available for a good diagnosis of abiotic and biotic habitat suitability, which simultaneously and conjointly use the environmental indicators based on a maximum number of animal and plant species. At the same time, the tools that exist and are in use certainly provide a number of good and suitable building blocks: these can contribute to the further development of a more comprehensive tool. The STOWA initiative to develop ecological key factors (ESF) for water system analysis in standing and flowing waters is a further contribution.

More insight for water managers

Species-specific response values for stressors offer an interesting opportunity to build reference communities. For example, through the lists with characteristic species for a WFD water type, we can make a selection of species that are, to a greater or lesser extent, sensitive to important stressors. One can for instance compare the current species composition at a location with a reference that consists specifically of species that are sensitive to eutrophication. Also, via the abiotic and biotic indication values derived from these species lists, we can in this way focus on the response of species that are sensitive to eutrophication. The reuse and further development of concepts embodied in the existing diagnostic tools hold great promise, particularly in the context of the radically improved data quality resulting from WFD monitoring standardisation. Building upon a rapid development of (e)DNA based regular biomonitoring, water managers will in the future benefit from a much sharper and more frequent insight into what is going on in the water bodies they manage.