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2007 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 6(3):471–478
Effects of Flow Fluctuations on the Spawning Habitat of a
Timothy B. Grabowski1,2 and J. Jeffrey Isely3,*
Abstract - Shallow-water, lithophilic spawning fishes are among the most vulnerable
to anthropogenic fluctuations in water levels. We monitored water levels and
environmental conditions at the nest sites of Moxostoma robustum (Robust Redhorse)
on a main-channel gravel bar in the Savannah River, GA–SC. During the
course of the 2005 spawning season, over 50% of the observed nest sites were either
completely dewatered or left in near zero-flow conditions for several days. This
occurred on two separate occasions, once early during the spawning season and then
again near its conclusion. We hypothesize the habitat preferences of spawning
Robust Redhorse leave them vulnerable to water-level fluctuations, and this phenomenon
may be widespread in regulated river systems.
Changes in the flow regime of rivers associated with the construction and
operation of hydropower facilities affects the availability and quality of fish
habitat, ultimately leading to changes in fish assemblage structure (Bunn
and Arthington 2002, Freeman et al. 2005, Pringle et al. 2000). Lithophillic
spawning fish deposit eggs on or within the substrate in shallow water
(Balon 1975). This is a common reproductive strategy utilized by riverine
fishes including Cyprinidae (minnows), Catostomidae (suckers), and
Salmonidae (salmonids) and, to a lesser extent, by Acipenseridae (sturgeons)
and Polyodontidae (paddlefish). These fishes are arguably among the
most vulnerable to fluctuations in water levels. For example, the dewatering
of salmonid redds in some Pacific northwest drainages due to hydropeaking
has been identified as a potentially significant source of mortality in developing
eggs (McMichael et al. 2005, Reiser and White 1983, Stober and Tyler
1982). While the phenomenon of nest-site dewatering has not been documented
for other taxa, rapid and significant water-level fluctuations occur
frequently in regulated rivers throughout the United States (Baxter 1977,
Bowen et al. 1998).
Moxostoma robustum Cope (Robust Redhorse) is one example of a
species potentially vulnerable to the effects of nest-site dewatering. This
1Department of Biological Sciences, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634-0326.
2Current address - Institute of Biology, University of Iceland, Askja, Sturlugata 7, Is-
101 Reykjavik, Iceland. 3US Geological Survey, South Carolina Cooperative Fish
and Wildlife Research Unit, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634-0372. *Corresponding
author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
472 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 3
large riverine catostomid was originally described in 1870 and subsequently
“lost” to science for 121 years (Bryant et al. 1996). Native populations are
currently known from only three Atlantic Slope drainages (Altamaha, Savannah,
and Pee Dee river systems) in North Carolina, South Carolina, and
Georgia. It is considered an imperiled species and is the subject of concerted
conservation efforts throughout its range. This species spawns in shallow
flowing water over gravel substrate in groups of three with a single female
flanked by a male on each side, similar to other Moxostoma species (Jenkins
and Burkhead 1993, Page and Johnston 1990). The triad quivers violently
displacing gravel and silt and excavating a shallow depression as gametes
are released. Eggs are deposited and develop in the substrate for about five
days before hatching (T.B. Grabowski, unpubl. data). Larvae remain in the
substrate for an additional 5–10 days before emerging (Weyers et al. 2003)
and dispersing downstream.
The Savannah River supports a population of Robust Redhorse restricted
to the lower 300-km reach below New Savannah Bluff Lock and
Dam (NSBLD), the terminal dam located in Augusta, GA. The Savannah
River is among the largest and most regulated of the Atlantic Slope drainages.
However due to the eight dams and six reservoirs along the length of
the river, Robust Redhorse in the lower Savannah have ready access to a
relatively small area of suitable spawning habitat in the form of two midchannel
gravel bars (Grabowski and Isely 2006, 2007). Each gravel bar
supports a spawning aggregation of Robust Redhorse in late spring. The
smaller and most downstream of these gravel bars appears to consistently
attract the largest spawning aggregation (Grabowski and Isely 2007). This
gravel bar is located at river kilometer 283, approximately 16 km downstream
of NSBLD. The lower gravel bar is approximately 60 m wide and
70 m long. It is a low-relief structure, rising approximately 2 m from the
riverbed and is subject to exposure when river discharge falls below approximately
200 m3 s-1. As part of a larger study on the use of gravel bars
by the Savannah River catostomid assemblage, we were present to document
the effects of water-level fluctuations on the quality and availability
of Robust Redhorse spawning habitat.
We observed the Robust Redhorse spawning aggregation on the lower
gravel bar in the Savannah River during 7–18 May 2005. Nest sites were
located on six days (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and 16 May) during this period. We
identified nest sites by noting the locations of actively spawning fish and/or
visually locating characteristic depressions in the substrate. We then determined
their location to within 3 m using a 12-channel hand-held global
positioning system receiver (Garmin International, Olathe, KS), and marked
each nest site with a surveyor flag. We recorded water depth in the center of
2007 T.B. Grabowski and J.J. Isely 473
the nest site to the nearest 0.01 m using a meter stick. We measured current
velocity along the upstream edge of each nest site using a digital stream flow
meter (Great Atlantic Flow Meters, Cornwall, UK). Daily and archived
river-discharge and gauge-height data were acquired from US Geological
Survey Gauging Station 02197000 located at New Savannah Bluff Lock and
Dam in Augusta, GA (available online at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/
Changes in discharge and gauge height on the Savannah River appeared
to be relatively minor during the period when Robust Redhorse were spawning
on the lower gravel bar in 2005 (Fig. 1). River discharge ranged from
130 to 216 m3 s-1, translating to a change of approximately 1.2 m in gauge
height. However, mean daily river discharge during 7–17 May 2005 was
lower than the mean of mean daily values for the past 98 years of record for
that period (t14 = -5.82, p < 0.0001). River discharge was below the median
discharge for 10 days over this period. River discharge was at or below the
25% quantile over two 2-day periods on 10–11 May and 15–16 May. Of note
is the first of these two-day periods, which was preceded by flows exceeding
the median on 9 May (Fig. 1).
The Robust Redhorse spawning aggregation initially formed along the
west side of the upstream edge of the gravel bar on 8 May 2005 (Fig. 2).
Figure 1. Discharge (m3 s-1) and gage height (m) of the Savannah River during
Moxostoma robustum (Robust Redhorse) spawning in May, 2005 as measured at
New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam in Augusta, GA. Nest sites were recorded on 08
(a), 09 (b), 10 (c), 11 (d), 12 (e), and 16 (f) May, 2005. Median daily discharge (m3 s-
1) based upon data collected 1884–2005.
474 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 3
Over the next two days, active nest sites were spread along both the western
upstream edge and the center of the bar. On 10–11 May 2005, river discharge
dropped below 142 m3 s-1, leaving approximately 26% of
the observed nest sites exposed. An additional 29% of observed nest sites
were still underwater in the central portion of the bar (Fig. 2). These nest
sites experienced approximately two full days of current velocities at or near
Figure 2. Location of Moxostoma robustum (Robust Redhorse) nest sites relative to
water levels on the lower gravel bar in the Savannah River during 08 (a), 09 (b), 10
(c), 11 (d), 12 (e), and 16 (f) May, 2005. Black indicates areas that were exposed.
Contour lines represent a change in depth of 0.25 m. Arrows indicate the direction of
water flow over or around the lower gravel bar.
2007 T.B. Grabowski and J.J. Isely 475
0.0 m s-1 and water depths 0.25 m. We observed the deposition of silt and
other fine sediments over this area. These nest sites were abandoned by
spawning adults during this period, but adults returned when water levels
increased on 12 May. During the period of 12–16 May, spawning Robust
Redhorse spread out along the entire upstream edge of the gravel bar. River
discharge dropped again on 16 May and left 27% of nest sites exposed and
an additional 33% in near zero-flow conditions.
Nest-site dewatering or degradation appears to have two major implications
to the Robust Redhorse spawning aggregation on the lower gravel
bar in the Savannah River and suggest problems that may arise in other
regulated river systems. The first is the potential for increased mortality of
embryos and larvae in affected nests. It is unknown to what degree the
early life-history stages of Robust Redhorse can tolerate environmental
changes such as decreased dissolved oxygen levels or elevated temperatures
associated with dewatering. The early life-history stages of some
species such as Oncorhynchus tshawytscha Walbaum (Chinook Salmon)
are surprisingly tolerant (Becker et al. 1983, Neitzel and Becker 1985).
For example, developing embryos showed > 90.0% survival rate after
being dewatered for 12 days under experimental conditions (Becker et al.
1983). The embryos and larvae in exposed nests could conceivably fare
better than those in areas that remain submerged but experience no flow.
Numerous studies demonstrate a correlation between increasing sedimentation
and decreased survival of developing embryos and larvae incubating
in gravel substrates (Chapman 1988, Dilts 1999) or the outright loss from
local assemblages of species dependent upon clean gravel substrates for
spawning (Sutherland et al. 2002). Depending on the tolerance of the early
life-history stages to nest dewatering, mortality may be higher in the nests
that remain submerged in zero-flow conditions. Further research is necessary
to determine the precise impacts of nest dewatering on survivorship
of early life-history stages. The second major implication is the possibility
of increased mortality associated with nest superimposition. Falling water
levels reduce the amount of suitable spawning habitat available on the
lower gravel bar, potentially increasing the risk of disturbance of preexisting
nest sites by spawning adults (Grabowski and Isely 2007, Hayes
1987, McNeil 1964).
Water-level fluctuations on the Savannah River illustrate an example
of an ecological trap that likely exists for many species of lithophilic
spawning fishes in regulated river systems. An ecological trap is a lowquality
habitat that animals use in preference to higher quality, available
habitats (Battin 2004, Kokko and Sutherland 2001). Historically in the
Savannah River, water-level declines following spring flood pulses would
476 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 3
have been more gradual, allowing fish to spawn in very shallow water
habitats with enough time for deposited eggs to complete development.
Spawning adults may have adapted to assess future habitat suitability
based on these historic flow conditions. Cues, such as rising water over
shallow or previously exposed gravel substrate, which may have been
important indicators of suitable spawning sites during pre-impoundment
conditions, are now somewhat maladaptive. Under post-impoundment
conditions, the descending portion of the hydrograph is much more
abrupt. Individuals responding to these cues explain the formation of new
nests on what appears to be dry land in Figure 2 on 11 May. A slight
increase in river discharge inundated these areas after nest-site positions
had been recorded on 10 May. However, water levels dropped again soon
after and remained low when nest positions were recorded on 11 May.
Fish spawned in this area instead of attempting to use portions of the
gravel bar less susceptible to dewatering or using suitable habitat less
susceptible to dewatering on the upstream gravel bar. The impact of nest
dewatering on the Savannah River Robust Redhorse population is unknown.
We observed a similar pattern of nest dewatering and spawning
habitat degradation in 2004, but it is not known how common this phenomenon
is on the Savannah River. However, the potential negative
impact of repeated spawning seasons with artificially high levels of reproductive
failures may have resulted in the currently observed levels of
low abundance. Habitats similar to the gravel bar described in this paper
are used by other catostomids (Grabowski and Isely 2007) and numerous
other species. The effects of water-level fluctuations in regulated rivers
on lithophilic spawning riverine species warrants further study.
We thank K. Meehan, M. Noad, and N. Ratterman for their assistance in the field.
E. Eidson and the Phinizy Swamp Nature Park provided logistical assistance for this
study. Cooperating agencies for the South Carolina Cooperative Fish and Wildlife
Research Unit are the US Geological Survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service,
Clemson University, the Wildlife Management Institute, and the South Carolina
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