Benthic diatom-based indices and isotopic biomonitoring of nitrogen pollution in a warm temperate Austral river system

Tatenda Dalu, Ross N. Cuthbert, Jonathan C. Taylor, Mandla L. Magoro, Olaf L.F. Weyl, P. William Froneman, Ryan J. Wasserman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


Rivers are impacted by pollutants from anthropogenic activities such as urbanisation and agricultural practices. Whilst point source pollution has been widely studied and in some cases remediated, non-point pollutant sources remain pervasive, particularly in developing countries that lack economic and human specialist capacity. Monitoring of pollution levels in many regions is additionally challenged by a lack of robust indicators for nitrogen inputs, however, diatom community indices and analysis of variation in microphytobenthos (MBP) stable isotope analysis variations have potential. The present study investigates variations and utilities in benthic diatom indices and MPB $15N along different river sections (n = 31) of an austral river between two seasons (wet and dry), testing for relationships with key environmental variables (physical, water and sediment), in the context of N monitoring. One hundred and eighteen diatom taxa belonging to 36 genera were identified, with physical (water flow), water (nitrate, P and total dissolved solids) and sediment (B, Ca, Cr, Na, N, P, SOM, Pb and Zn) variables correlating to one or more of the 12 diatom indices presented. In particular, Biological Diatom Index, Biological Index of Water Quality, Central Economic Community, Index of Artois-Picardie Diatom (IDAP) and Sládeček's Index were strongly explained by sediment variables, whilst Descy's Pollution Index and Schiefele and Schreiner's Index were explained by water and physical variables. Whilst MPB $15N were within the “no impact” level in the wet and dry seasons at reference (i.e. unpolluted) sites, all sites located in agricultural or urban areas, and downstream of sewage discharges, had a wider range that encompassed increasing organic impacts (“inorganic impacts” to high “organic impacts”). Temperature and turbidity (negative), as well as dissolved oxygen, waterway width and depth (positive), significantly affected MPB $15N, whilst effects of chemistry variables were less apparent. Overall, we found that MPB $15N signatures were significantly correlated with Trophic Diatom Index, the Specific Pollution Sensitivity Index and the Artois-Picardie Diatom Index, suggesting the utility of diatoms and MPB $15N in assessments of aquatic pollution. In turn, MPB $15N values are strong indicators of N pollution across spatial and seasonal gradients. Thus, the results showed the effects of sediment variables on diatoms to be strong, indicating that sediment rather than water characteristics more strongly structure diatom communities. Thus, sediment variables should be sampled when conducting bioassessment studies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)142452
Number of pages1
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date22 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2020


  • Aquatic ecosystem
  • Benthic algae
  • Bloukrans River
  • Diatom index
  • Nutrient enrichment
  • Stable isotopes


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