Predicting Biodiversity Vulnerability to Climate Change: Integrating Phylogenetic, Genomic, and Functional Diversity in River Floodplains


River floodplains are among the most biodiverse yet endangered landscapes on earth due to human-caused habitat destruction, shifts in river flow regimes, and climate change. Floodplains provide important habitat for aquatic and terrestrial organisms from microbes, insects and fish, to amphibians, birds, elk and grizzly bears. For example, half of all the >100 stonefly species in the entire state of Montana exist along the Flathead River. Unfortunately, many species and their gene diversity are disappearing from river floodplains before we can even document their existence or describe their characteristics and importance within the greater food web (e.g., which insects are food for fish or birds?).

River floodplains are very complex because the amazingly diverse types of habitats found there (Fig 1). Frequent floods create a shifting mosaic of different aquatic habitats on floodplains. For example, in addition to the main river there are smaller side channels, ponds and springs that all have different temperatures and habitat characteristics. Even more habitat diversity occurs on river floodplains than meets the eye because the river is interconnected to underground gravel beds (the aquifer) that underlies the entire floodplain. These aquifer habitats are connected via underground water flow for <2 kilometers away from the main river channel!

Nyack Floodplain
Nyack Floodplain (photo by Amanda Delvecchia)

These different habitats support highly diverse invertebrate communities that are almost entirely unstudied using genetic techniques. Most stoneflies (Plecoptera) are found in water with a lot of oxygen, like the main river channel. Stoneflies are very exciting to study in river floodplains because there are species that are adapted to living underground in the river aquifer. Some of these species can even live in places with very low oxygen.

This study will quantify biodiversity vulnerability of the river channel and aquifer stonefly species in relation to strong variation in habitat conditions (temperature, dissolved oxygen, elevation) that are created by flooding and found on river floodplains.

Relatively little is known about the diversity and vulnerability of aquifer and river communities in a floodplain landscape context, especially the role of adaptive capacity (the measure of the ability of organisms to adapt to changes in the environment either through their genetic or physiological makeup) in reducing vulnerability to negative effects of environmental change. This project integrates the dimensions of biodiversity by combining empirical phylogenetic, population genomic, and functional trait data from experiments and natural populations, and by explicitly modeling and testing for species and genomic interactions along floodplain environmental gradients.

Nyack location within Montana map and satellite view of floodplain
The Nyack Floodplain is located near Glacier National Park on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River

Our work is being conducted on floodplains of the Middle Fork, North Fork and main Flathead River in Montana, as well as on floodplains of the Methow River in Washington. Our research is building on 40+ years of past work on the Nyack Floodplain (by former FLBS director Dr. Jack Stanford and 50+ undergraduate students, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and collaborators that has resulted in 70+ publications). The Nyack is both a focal study site of the Flathead Lake Biological Station and one of the most studied river floodplains in the world (see below).

Our project is being funded by a grant from the Dimensions of Biodiversity program at the National Science Foundation.

Project Objectives

This project will fill important knowledge gaps in biodiversity research by 1) quantifying phylogenetic diversity (i.e., among aquifer and benthic floodplain species while identifying new species, 2) measuring sensitivity to climate change of indicator species (primarily Plecoptera) sampled from aquifers and rivers along environmental gradients, 3) measure exposure to climate change in the aquifer and river by measuring and modeling variation in water temperature and dissolved oxygen, 4) assessing adaptive capacity in floodplain indicator species by quantifying patterns of dispersal, gene flow, and allelic diversity (at neutral and adaptive loci), and 5) predict overall vulnerability of biodiversity within and among floodplains.


We conducted outdoor educational days for middle school and high school students, as well as summer college interns, at the Nyack Floodplain. Students toured the floodplain, listened to lectures, participated in hands-on stonefly collections from the river and aquifer, and had a chance to check out their collections on the microscopes.

Mission Valley students receive field instruction
Students pick bugs from field samples
Students view their sample results under microscope

Science Team

  • Dr. Gordon Luikart, Principle Investigator – FLBS Professor – Conservation Ecology & Genetics
  • Dr. Brian Hand, co-PI – FLBS Assistant Research Professor
  • Dr. Jack Stanford, co-PI – Former FLBS Director and Professor
  • Dr. Rachel Malison – FLBS Postdoctoral Scholar
  • Dr. Amanda DelVecchia – UNC Postdoctoral Scholar
  • Dr. Steve Jordan - Bucknell
  • Emily Winter - Lab Technician
  • Steve Amish - Lab manager/Researcher

Field and Lab Crews (2017)

  • Keridwen Whitmore – Field Volunteer
  • Megan Ritter – Field Volunteer
  • Garrett Frandson – Field Volunteer
  • Wesley Sigl – Field Volunteer
  • Hailey Jacobson – Field Summer Intern
  • Caitlin Cox – Lab Volunteer
  • Michelle Hauer – Lab Volunteer

Field Season (2017)

Our field crew lived at our camp on the Nyack floodplain from April-October of 2017 and spent most of their days collecting samples from sites on the Middle Fork, North Fork and main Flathead Rivers. The first task of the season was to select focal study floodplains and sample sites within them. We selected seven floodplains spanning from the Kalispell valley, almost up to the Canadian border on the North Fork and up to Bear Creek on the Middle Fork. Within each floodplain we had 3-5 sites where we collected larvae and adult stoneflies.

We used a variety of methods to sample thousands of river and aquifer stoneflies this year. We sampled river banks using pit fall traps, by sweep netting vegetation, and by looking under rocks for late instar larvae and adult stoneflies from the river. We sampled stoneflies emerging from the aquifer each week from a network of groundwater wells at the Nyack floodplain. We also collected stoneflies from within the river using kick nets.

We conducted exploratory well drilling using a Geoprobe, with UM Assistant Professor Payton Gardner, and successfully found aquifer stoneflies at new study floodplains. The field crew also spent some time sampling near river aquifer habitats using sand points.

The crew also deployed temperature loggers and collected other environmental data at field sites, including dissolved oxygen readings.

When not in the field the crew worked to identify and count the thousands of stonefly samples that they collected.

Nyack crew hikes near Glacier Park
Part of the crew in the Bob Marshall

Field Work Photos (2017)

Crew explains Nyack research at the FLBS Open House event
2017 FLBS Open House, ©Sigl
Stonefly pumped from a Nyack well
Larval Pteronarcys stonefly, ©Jacobson
Hiking to a study site
Hiking to a study site, ©Frandson
Stoneflies emerging through a well-casing from the Nyack aquifer
Adult stoneflies emerge, ©Frandson
A rainbow over the Nyack after a storm
Rainbow and stormy weather, ©Frandson
Adult stonefly on a yellowed autumn leaf
Adult stonefly, ©Frandson
Crew conducts research along a river channel
Fieldwork at Wurtz floodplain, ©Ritter
Collecting stroneflies from pit fall traps
Collecting stoneflies, ©Frandson
Snowfall outside the Nyack research cabin
Winter begins, Nyack field camp, ©Frandson

Donations Welcomed

Donations are needed in the following areas to help further scientific discovery on the Nyack Floodplain!

All donations are made through the University of Montana and are tax deductible.

To donate, visit the FLBS Giving page, select the "Other" option on the donations form, and be sure to write "Nyack Research" in the notes section.

Scholarships for Graduate Students

  • Emily Winter needs funding support to pursue a graduate degree at the University of Montana studying stonefly genomics and adaptation.
  • Megan Ritter needs funding support to study the taxonomy or phylogenomics of stoneflies on river floodplains and potential discover NEW SPECIES. She is transitioning to a MS program after being an undergraduate volunteer for our project this year.

Undergraduate Student Training

  • Each field season we will train undergraduate students who volunteer to work on our project. We have a need for funding to pay student volunteers for their time working. Students experience all aspects of the project, collect field data and have the opportunity to conduct (and potentially publish) independent projects. A project for 2018 will focus on “fish food”: what proportion of underground aquifer bugs make up fish (trout, sculpins) diets?

Postdoctoral Scholarship

  • Rachel Malison is the postdoctoral researcher on the project. She is running the daily operations of the project and helping train undergraduate and graduate students. Her research is focused on the adaptive capacity of river and aquifer stoneflies. She is conducting experiments to see how well different species can tolerate changing temperatures and low dissolved oxygen levels.

4x4 Vehicle for Transportation

  • Field research is rough on vehicles. We are in need of a 4x4 vehicle to be used in sampling across sites in the Flathead and Washington state. Donations of cash or a used vehicle, or pay for 9 months rental would allow far more efficient and geographically & temporally extensive sampling (including insects, fish diets, bats).
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