Material spiraling in stream corridors: A telescoping ecosystem model

Stuart G. Fisher, Nancy Grimm, Eugènia Martí, Robert M. Holmes, Jeremy B. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

254 Scopus citations


Stream ecosystems consist of several subsystems that are spatially distributed concentrically, analogous to the elements of a simple telescope. Subsystems include the central surface stream, vertically and laterally arrayed saturated sediments (hyporheic and parafluvial zones), and the most distal element, the riparian zone. These zones are hydrologically connected; thus water and its dissolved and suspended load move through all of these subsystems as it flows downstream. In any given subsystem, chemical transformations result in a change in the quantity of materials in transport. Processing length is the length of subsystem required to "process" an amount of substrate equal to advective input. Long processing lengths reflect low rates of material cycling. Processing length provides the length dimension of each cylindrical element of the telescope and is specific to subsystem (for example, the surface stream), substrate (for instance, nitrate), and process (denitrification, for example). Disturbance causes processing length to increase. Processing length decreases during succession following disturbance. The whole stream-corridor ecosystem consists of several nested cylindrical elements that extend and retract, much as would a telescope, in response to disturbance regime. This telescoping ecosystem model (TEM) can improve understanding of material retention in running water systems; that is, their "nutrient filtration" capacity. We hypothesize that disturbance by flooding alters this capacity in proportion to both intensity of disturbance and to the relative effect of disturbance on each subsystem. We would expect more distal subsystems (for example, the riparian zone) to show the highest resistance to floods. In contrast, we predict that postflood recovery of functions such as material processing (that is, resilience) will be highest in central elements and decrease laterally. Resistance and resilience of subsystems are thus both inversely correlated and spatially separated. We further hypothesize that cross-linkages between adjacent subsystems will enhance resilience of the system as a whole. Whole-ecosystem retention, transformation, and transport are thus viewed as a function of subsystem extent, lateral and vertical linkage, and disturbance regime.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-34
Number of pages16
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 1998


  • Disturbance
  • Hydrology
  • Hyporheic
  • Nutrients
  • Riparian
  • Stream
  • Telescoping ecosystem

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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