Biomonitoring Our Streams

U.S. Geological Survey, Open-File Report 94-378

by T.D. Byl, and G.F. Smith

This report is available as a pdf below

What Is Biomonitoring?

Testing for chemical pollution in our nation's streams has traditionally meant using analytical chemistry. In recent years, environmental agencies have endorsed biological monitoring to enhance or replace chemical monitoring. The theory behind biological monitoring (biomonitoring) is to use the organisms living in the aquatic system as a measure of water quality. This concept was applied to air quality and used by miners who took canaries into deep mines with them. If the canary died, the miners knew the air was bad, and they had to leave the mine.

Biomonitoring an aquatic system uses the same theoretical approach . Aquatic organisms are subject to pollutants in the stream as it flows by, day or night. Consequently, the health of the organisms reflects the quality of the water they live in. If the pollution levels reach a critical concentration, certain organisms will die, migrate away, or fail to reproduce, eventually leading to the disappearance of those species at the polluted site. Normally, these organisms will return if conditions improve in the system.

The three general components of an aquatic ecosystem that influence the biological community are: water chemistry, geomorphology, and hydrology. Each component influences the health of the biological community individually and together . Toxic chemicals are only a single factor within the water-chemistry component. The relation of these three components to each other can be shown on a triangle (figure 1).

The relative importance of one component may change with time and location . At certain times of the year or in different geographical settings, a single factor may exert primary control on the well-being of the biological community. For example, straightening a stream and removing all woody debris drastically alters a stream's geomorphology. This results in loss of natural habitat and shelter for certain organisms. The organisms that require this shelter will disappear from the modified system. Separating the influence of one component from the others is difficult. Consideration of all three components and their interactions is critical when interpreting biomonitormg data.

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