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Upland and lowland (freshwater ecology)

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Title: Upland and lowland (freshwater ecology)  
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Subject: Biome, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Eutrophication, River ecosystem, Living shorelines
Collection: Freshwater Ecology, Riparian Zone, Rivers, Water and the Environment
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Upland and lowland (freshwater ecology)

Cascadilla Creek, near Ithaca, New York in the United States, an example of an upland river habitat.

In studies of the ecology of freshwater rivers, habitats are classified as upland and lowland.


  • Definitions 1
  • Upland 2
  • Lowland 3
  • Lowland alluvial plains 4
  • See also 5


Upland habitats are cold, clear, rocky, fast-flowing rivers in mountainous areas; lowland habitats are warm, slow-flowing rivers found in relatively flat lowland areas, with water that is frequently coloured by sediment and organic matter.

These classifications overlap with the geological definitions of "upland" and "lowland". In geology an "upland" is generally considered to be land that is at a higher elevation than the alluvial plain or stream terrace, which are considered to be "lowlands". The term "bottomland" refers to low-lying alluvial land near a river.

Many freshwater fish and invertebrate communities around the world show a pattern of specialisation into upland or lowland river habitats. Classifying rivers and streams as upland or lowland is important in freshwater ecology as the two types of river habitat are very different, and usually support very different populations of fish and invertebrate species.


In freshwater ecology, upland rivers and streams are the fast-flowing rivers and streams that drain elevated or mountainous country, often onto broad alluvial plains (where they become lowland rivers). However, altitude is not the sole determinant of whether a river is upland or lowland. Arguably the most important determinants are that of stream power and course gradient. Rivers with a course that drops in altitude rapidly will have faster water flow and higher stream power or "force of water". This in turn produces the other characteristics of an upland river - an incised course, a river bed dominated by bedrock and coarse sediments, a riffle and pool structure and cooler water temperatures. Rivers with a course that drops in altitude very slowly will have slower water flow and lower force. This in turn produces the other characteristics of a lowland river - a meandering course lacking rapids, a river bed dominated by fine sediments and higher water temperatures. Lowland rivers tend to carry more suspended sediment and organic matter as well, but some lowland rivers have periods of high water clarity in seasonal low-flow periods.

The generally clear, cool, fast-flowing waters and bedrock and coarse sediment beds of upland rivers encourage fish species with limited temperature tolerances, high oxygen needs, strong swimming ability and specialised reproductive strategies to prevent eggs or larvae being swept away. These characteristics also encourage invertebrate species with limited temperature tolerances, high oxygen needs and ecologies revolving around coarse sediments and interstices or "gaps" between those coarse sediments.


Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil, an example of a lowland river habitat.

The generally more turbid, warm, slow-flowing waters and fine sediment beds of lowland rivers encourage fish species with broad temperature tolerances and greater tolerances to low oxygen levels, and life history and breeding strategies adapted to these and other traits of lowland rivers. These characteristics also encourage invertebrate species with broad temperature tolerances and greater tolerances to low oxygen levels and ecologies revolving around fine sediments or alternative habitats such as submerged woody debris ("snags") or submergent macrophytes ("water weed").

Lowland alluvial plains

See also

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