A Freshwater Splash: Urban Stream Ecology and Biodiversity

Sandra Clinton, Ph.D., Geography and Earth Sciences, UNC Charlotte


If asked to describe the components of our urban environment we might respond with roads, buildings, and people.  But would you also think about streams and rivers, riparian trees, and freshwater organisms such as insects and beavers? The overall goal of this seminar is to gain an appreciation for and to ask questions about the ecology and biodiversity of streams in our urban environment.  While we will use the City of Charlotte as our research example, the skills and knowledge learned during this seminar are applicable to urban freshwater ecosystems nationally and globally.  The seminar will be structured in 3 parts.  In the first section we will learn about the ecology of key organisms living in local streams and rivers. In the second part we will learn about the ecology of these urban freshwater ecosystems by highlighting several key concepts and processes.  Finally, we will address stressors that are impacting urban stream biodiversity and ecology. These 3 sections are interconnected to provide a holistic understanding of the ecosystem services provided by urban streams and rivers of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region.

Part I: Biodiversity

We will learn about the distribution and ecology of major organisms that are living in freshwater ecosystems.  These organisms include: macroinvertebrates, fish, birds, bats, river otters, and beavers. We will talk about methods to collect data on some of these organisms including resources for both field collection, field cameras, and web-based.

Part II: Processes

We will use published research studies focused on stream concepts to link our knowledge of biodiversity to ecosystem processes.  These major themes include: The River Continuum Concept; Leaf Decomposition; Aquatic-Terrestrial Interactions; and Habitat Complexity.

As part of this module I will introduce several lab and citizen science opportunities that can be used both in the classroom and at our local streams.  Examples of these hands-on activities include resources from: 1) Leaf Pack Network https://leafpacknetwork.org/; 2) Water quality biomonitoring using macroinvertebrates https://www.macroinvertebrates.org/; and 3) watershed stewardship WikiWatershed https://wikiwatershed.org/.  Additional education developed by other researchers will also be shared (e.g. Proctor Creek project, Atlanta GA)

Part III: Ecosystem Services, Stressors, and Solutions

We will begin this section reviewing the concept of ecosystem services and the services provided by urban streams to our communities. We will also take this opportunity to discuss whether these services are equitably distributed in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. We will discuss how 2 major stressor (stormwater and trash) impact the ecology and biodiversity of our streams.  Finally, we will discuss potential solutions for conserving our urban streams including resources that students and teachers can participate in such as Creek Releaf, stream clean-ups, storm drain marking, and water quality monitoring. We will discuss how teachers can implement activities from Part II and III into a yearly activity that can be used to teach critical thinking and data analysis and management, scientific process for different grade levels..

This seminar is appropriate for all teachers in grades K-12.