Land use change and forest degradation have myriad effects on tropical ecosystems. Yet their consequences for low-order streams remain very poorly understood, including in the world´s largest freshwater basin, the Amazon.

This study sought to determine the degree to which physical and chemical characteristics of the instream habitat of low-order Amazonian streams change in response to past local- and catchment-level anthropogenic disturbances. The authors collected field instream habitat (i.e. physical habitat and water quality) and landscape data from 99 stream sites in two eastern Brazilian Amazon regions. They used random forest regression trees to assess the relative importance of different predictor variables in determining changes in instream habitat response variables.

Multiple drivers, operating at multiple spatial scales, were important in determining changes in the physical habitat and water quality of the sites. Although the study found few similarities in modelled relationships between the two regions, specific instream characteristics had non-linear responses to landscape change; for example, 20% of catchment deforestation resulted in consistently warmer streams.

The results highlight the importance of local riparian and catchment-scale forest cover in shaping instream physical environments, but also underscore the importance of other land use changes and activities, such as road crossings and upstream agriculture intensification. In contrast to the property-scale focus of the Brazilian Forest code, which governs environmental regulations on private land, these results reinforce the importance of catchment-wide management strategies to protect stream ecosystem integrity.

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