Ecological responses to flow variation inform river dolphin conservation
Many environmental flow (e-flow) studies and applications have predominantly used state—(i.e., at a single time point) and rate—(i.e., temporal change) based demographic characteristics of species representing lower trophic levels (e.g., fish communities) to build flow-ecology relationships, rather than using a process that incorporates population dynamics. Recent studies have revealed the importance of incorporating data on species traits when building flow-ecology relationships. The effects of flow on keystone megafauna species (i.e., body mass ≥ 30 kg) reverberate through entire food webs; however, the relationships between flow and these species are not well understood, limiting the scope of the relationships used in flow management. Here, we fill this gap by incorporating the habitat selection traits at different flows of a freshwater apex predator, Ganges River dolphin (GRD, Platanista gangetica gangetica), which plays a significant role in maintaining the structure, functions and integrity of the aquatic ecosystem. Using temporally and spatially measured GRD habitat selection traits, we quantified flow-ecology responses in the Karnali River of Nepal during the low-flow season when habitat was heavily reduced and water demand was highest. We define ecological responses as suitable habitat templates with enough usable surface area to support GRD fitness by improving reproduction and survival. We measured the available and occupied habitats to develop flow-ecology responses. Variation in flow resulted in substantial differences in the ecological response across time and space, suggesting that aquatic species adjusted in a variety of habitats to support their life histories and maintain viable populations. The limited availability of suitable habitats combined with uninformed water regulations by humans likely places GRDs under severe physiological stress during low-water seasons (i.e., January–April), suggesting that reduced flows contribute to the process of endangering and extirpating highly sensitive endemic aquatic biodiversity. Our study reveals that ad hoc or experience-based flow management is no longer tenable to maintain the integrity and functionality of aquatic ecosystems. We stress that quantifying the flow-ecology relationships of foundational species, particularly megafauna, in response to flow variation is crucial for monitoring the effects of water alterations and determining the minimum flows needed for maintaining healthy and functional freshwater ecosystems in the Anthropocene.