National Park Service


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The floodplains of large rivers have been heavily modified due to riparian development and channel modifications, both of which can eliminate shallow off-channel habitats. The importance of these habitats for aquatic organisms like fishes is well studied. However, loss of off-channel habitat also eliminates habitats for the production of emerging aquatic insects, which subsidize riparian consumers in terrestrial food webs. We used field collections of insect emergence, historical mapping, and statistical modeling to estimate the loss of insect emergence due to channel modifications along eight segments of the Missouri River (USA), encompassing 1566 river km, between 1890 and 2012. We estimate annual production of emerging aquatic insects declined by a median of 36,000 kgC (95% CrI: 3000 to 450,000) between 1890 and 2012 (a 34% loss), due to the loss of surface area in backwaters and related off-channel habitats. Under a conservative assumption that riparian birds obtain 24% of their annual energy budget from adult aquatic insects, this amount of insect loss would be enough to subsidize approximately 790,000 riparan woodland birds during the breeding and nesting period (May to August; 95% CrI: 57,000 to 10,000,000). Most of the loss is concentrated in the lower reaches of the Missouri River, which historically had a wide floodplain, a meandering channel, and a high density of off-channel habitats, but which were substantially reduced due to channelization and bank stabilization. Our results indicate that the loss of off-channel habitats in large river floodplains has the potential to substantially affect energy availability for riparian insectivores, further demonstrating the importance of maintaining and restoring these habitats for linked aquatic-terrestrial ecosystems.