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A Bayesian hierarchical trend analysis finds strong evidence for large-scale temporal declines in stream ecological condition around Melbourne, Australia

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Knowledge of temporal change in ecological condition is important for the understanding and management of ecosystems. However, analyses of trends in biological condition have been rare, as there are usually too few data points at any single site to use many trend analysis techniques. We used a Bayesian hierarchical model to analyse temporal trends in stream ecological condition (as measured by the invertebrate-based index SIGNAL) across Melbourne, Australia. The Bayesian hierarchical approach assumes dependency amongst the sampling sites. Results for each site “borrow strength” from the other data because model parameter values are assumed to be drawn from a larger common distribution. This leads to robust inference despite the few data that exist at each site. Utilising the flexibility of the Bayesian approach, we also modelled change over time as a function of catchment urbanisation, allowed for potential temporal and spatial autocorrelation of the data and trend estimates, and used prior information to improve the estimate of data uncertainty. We found strong evidence of a widespread decline in SIGNAL scores for edge habitats (areas of little or no flow). The rate of decline was positively associated with catchment urbanisation. There was no evidence of such declines for riffle habitats (areas with rapid and turbulent flow). Melbourne has experienced a decline in rainfall, indicative of either drought and/or longer-term climate change. The results are consistent with the expected coupled effects of these rainfall changes and increasing urbanisation, but more research is needed to isolate a causal mechanism. More immediately, however, the Bayesian hierarchical approach has allowed us to identify a pattern in a biological monitoring data set that might otherwise have gone un-noticed, and to demonstrate a large-scale temporal decline in biological condition.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2009

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