The Ecological Integrity of Spring Ecosystems: A Global Review


Springs are ecosystems influenced by the exposure of groundwater at the Earth’s surface. Springs are abundant and have played important, highly interactive ecological, cultural, and socio-economic roles in arid, mesic, and subaqueous environments throughout human evolution and history. However, springs also are widely regarded as being highly threatened by human impacts. Cantonati et al. (2020a) recommended increased global awareness of springs, including basic mapping, inventory and assessment of the distribution and ecological integrity of springs. We conducted a preliminary global analysis on the ecological integrity of springs by reviewing information on the distribution, ecohydrogeology, associated species, kinds and intensity of human uses, and level of ecological impairment of spring ecosystems. We reviewed information on an estimated 250,000 spring ecosystems among 78 countries across much of the world. Available literature on springs ecological integrity is sparse, widely scattered, and spatially erratic, with major gaps in knowledge. We report large differences in the quality and extent of information among countries and continents, with only moderate data availability even among developed countries, and limited information across most of the developing world. Among countries with available data, ecological impairment of springs is everywhere rampant, sometimes exceeding 90% in developed regions. Impairment among Holarctic nations is generally negatively related to distance from human development, elevation, and latitude, but such patterns are less evident in Africa, Australia, and South America. Declining trends in ecosystem condition, compounding threat factors, and springs-dependent population declines, extirpation, and extinctions of plants, invertebrates, fish, and herpetofauna are widely reported. Overall, available information indicates a global crisis in spring ecosystem integrity, with levels of ecosystem impairment ranging from Vulnerable to fully Collapsed. The threats to aquifer and the ecological integrity of springs vary spatially. Many springs are impaired by local impacts due to flow diversion, geomorphic alteration, land use practices, recreation impacts, and the introduction of non-native species. These threats can be reduced through education, rehabilitation of geomorphology and habitat quality, and species reintroductions if the supporting aquifer remains relatively intact. However, springs also are widely threatened by regional to global factors, including groundwater extraction and pollution, as well as climate change. Such coarse-scale, pre-emergence impacts negatively affect the sustainability of spring ecosystems and the aquifers that support them. Improving understanding and stewardship of springs will require much additional systematic inventory and assessment, improved information management, and reconsideration of basic conservation concepts (e.g., habitat connectivity), as well as cultural and socio-economic valuation. Substantial societal recognition, discussion, and policy reform are needed within and among nations to better protect and sustainably rehabilitate springs, their supporting aquifers, and the springs-dependent human and biotic populations that depend upon them. Keywords Assessment, Ecosystem, Endangered, Global imperilment, Groundwater, Ramsar convention, Red list of ecosystems, Springs, Springs-dependent taxa.

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