Microbial assemblages reflect environmental heterogeneity in alpine streams

Scott Hotaling, Mary E. Foley, Lydia H. Zeglin, Debra S. Finn, Lusha M. Tronstad, J. Joseph Giersch, Clint C. Muhlfeld, David W. Weisrock

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Alpine streams are dynamic habitats harboring substantial biodiversity across small spatial extents. The diversity of alpine stream biota is largely reflective of environmental heterogeneity stemming from varying hydrological sources. Globally, alpine stream diversity is under threat as meltwater sources recede and stream conditions become increasingly homogeneous. Much attention has been devoted to macroinvertebrate diversity in alpine headwaters, yet to fully understand the breadth of climate change threats, a more thorough accounting of microbial diversity is needed. We characterized microbial diversity (specifically Bacteria and Archaea) of 13 streams in two disjunct Rocky Mountain subranges through 16S rRNA gene sequencing. Our study encompassed the spectrum of alpine stream sources (glaciers, snowfields, subterranean ice, and groundwater) and three microhabitats (ice, biofilms, and streamwater). We observed no difference in regional (γ) diversity between subranges but substantial differences in diversity among (β) stream types and microhabitats. Within-stream (α) diversity was highest in groundwater-fed springs, lowest in glacier-fed streams, and positively correlated with water temperature for both streamwater and biofilm assemblages. We identified an underappreciated alpine stream type—the icy seep—that are fed by subterranean ice, exhibit cold temperatures (summer mean <2°C), moderate bed stability, and relatively high conductivity. Icy seeps will likely be important for combatting biodiversity losses as they contain similar microbial assemblages to streams fed by surface ice yet may be buffered against climate change by insulating debris cover. Our results show that the patterns of microbial diversity support an ominous trend for alpine stream biodiversity; as meltwater sources decline, stream communities will become more diverse locally, but regional diversity will be lost. Icy seeps, however, represent a source of optimism for the future of biodiversity in these imperiled ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2576-2590
Number of pages15
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 John Wiley & Sons Ltd


  • Glacier National Park
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Rocky Mountains
  • biodiversity
  • glacier-fed streams
  • icy seeps
  • microbial biogeography
  • rock glacier biology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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