Department of Geography, University College London, London WC1E 6BT, UNITED KINGDOM.
In freshwater bodies algae provide key ecosystem services such as food and water purification. This is the first systematic assessment of biodiversity, biomass and distribution patterns of these aquatic primary producers in the Okavango Delta (Botswana), a subtropical flood-pulsed wetland in semiarid Southern Africa.
This study delivers the first estimate of algal species and genera richness at the Delta scale; 496 species and 173 genera were observed in 132 samples. A new variety of desmid (Chlorophyta) was discovered, Cosmarium pseudosulcatum var. okavangicum, and species richness estimators suggest that a further few hundred unidentified species likely live in this wetland. Rare species represent 81% of species richness and 30% of total algal biovolume. Species composition is most similar within habitat types, thus varying more significantly at the Delta scale. In seasonally inundated floodplains, algal species / genera richness and diversity are significantly higher than in permanently flooded open water habitats. The annual flood pulse has historically allowed more diverse algal communities to develop and persist in these shallower and warmer environments with higher mean nutrient levels and more substrata and more heterogenous habitats for benthic taxa. These results support the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis, Species-Energy Theory and Habitat Heterogeneity Diversity hypotheses. Higher algal biodiversity supports higher algal biomass in the floodplains, where species form three-dimensional communities of attached and periphytic algae requiring more nutrients than phytoplankton assemblages. Multivariate analyses demonstrate that habitat type, flooding frequency and conductivity most importantly influence the relative abundance of algal species, genera and phyla in the Okavango Delta.
This study’s findings highlight how the preservation of water level fluctuations and habitat heterogeneity is crucial to maintaining biodiverse and thus resilient food webs in this unique ecosystem which faces increasing anthropogenic threats, such as global warming and upstream water abstraction plans.