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Connectivity and the landscape

Aquatic ecosystem connectivity refers to the connections between and within aquatic ecosystems. A good example is flooding connecting a river to a billabong.

An appreciation of the connection of the wetland to other wetlands and to the broader catchment and landscape is important for effective management decisions. For example, when looking at prioritising wetlands for management actions in a catchment, a wetland that provides refuge for wildlife in a dry landscape may be given priority.

Wetlands connect the landscape Photo by Cathy Ellis

Quick facts

Landscape ecology
examines the ecological processes in the environment and how they contribute to ecosystem function. By examining systems at this level of scale we provide an appropriate ecological context to management activities.

Walking the landscape

The Framework for evaluating aquatic ecosystem connectivity provides a way of understanding and applying connectivity at any level of spatial scale for any management outcome. It can also benefit research in providing a systematic method for the consideration of complex forms of ecological connectivity. A  connectivity animation and narration provides a brief yet comprehensive explanation about aquatic ecosystem connectivity across the landscape. It is supported by a connectivity poster.

Walking the landscape is a whole-of-system framework for understanding and mapping environmental processes and values. Developed by the Program in collaboration with other partners it systematically and transparently synthesises science by integrating existing data with expert knowledge to develop robust conceptual models which are spatially linked to real world landscapes. This process has been used to develop interactive catchment stories which demonstrate how water flows in catchments.

Connectivity is generally easy to understand and can be applied to almost any part of an ecosystem, for example:

  • Hydrology: Water flows from upland river systems down across the lowlands and out to sea via estuaries. 
  • Ecology: Higher water levels allow fish to connect to different habitats.
  • Genetics: Genetic diversity is maintained by fish migration between different populations.
  • Geological processes: Disconnection of coastlines from in-stream sedimentation processes can alter coastal formation processes.

While these examples demonstrate that the concepts of connectivity are readily understood, without a way to systematically apply this understanding it becomes difficult to evaluate it in an ecologically meaningful way.

In general, management decisions focus on physical patterns of connectivity. These usually address the 'connection' provided by a physical feature of the environment, e.g. corridors, stream networks etc., assuming this to be a surrogate for other types of connectivity and that these physical connections mediate other connections.

It is important to understand that connectivity does not automatically happen because of a connection by a physical medium, e.g. just because water flows between two points does not mean fish will disperse between them. As such, connectivity cannot be evaluated by the use of single physical features alone, and the potential for connectivity does not necessarily mean it will be realised. To understand aquatic ecosystem connectivity it is necessary to understand the ecological processes at work in these systems as it is these processes that make it possible for parts of the system to connect.

While many effective wetland management actions can be conducted at a site level, without an appreciation of the connection of the wetland to other wetlands and to the broader catchment and landscape, many site-specific actions may be of limited value. Many of the values and ecosystems ascribed to wetlands are only effective when the wetlands are part of a connected landscape network.

Connectivity animation

Aquatic ecosystem connectivity refers to the connections between and within aquatic ecosystems. An appreciation of the connection of the wetland to other wetlands and to the broader catchment and landscape is important for effective management decisions.

This YouTube animation and narration helps explain key Aquatic Ecosystem Connectivity concepts in a format aimed at high school and university students.

Duration 9:50

Aquatic ecosystem connectivity poster

Poster promoting the importance and difference types of aquatic ecosystem connectivity

The connectivity and 'Walking the landscape' frameworks

The key principles, derived from the Queensland Wetlands Program framework for evaluating aquatic ecosystem connectivity, that need to be considered when looking at connectivity, are:

  • There needs to be a purpose for connectivity linked to the overall management objectives. Good connections for one species might not result in connections for another species.
  • Potential and realised connectivity needs to be understood for decision making. Connectivity cannot be evaluated by the use of single physical features alone, and the potential for connectivity does not necessarily mean it will be realised.
  • Connectivity must occur through the physical environment (air, water, land), but more connections do not necessarily result in appropriate connectivity. Some species require isolation to exist and connections to other areas and species might be detrimental to their survival.
  • The parts of the ecosystem (soils, flora, refugia etc.) and connectivity must both be addressed for long-term systems resilience.
  • Connectivity is a mechanism that supports ecological processes.
  • Conceptual models of underlying processes are essential precursors to identifying and addressing connectivity.
  • Knowledge gaps and uncertainty must be acknowledged, but not limit decision making.
  • When looking at how relevant certain processes are in an ecosystem, it’s important to consider the geographical area affected by these processes and the appropriate timeframe over which these processes occur.

  • The process determines the ecological relevance of the spatial and temporal scale. Flooding in floodplains is relevant for connecting large parts of the landscape.
  • Adaptive management allows for decisions to be refined over time.

Framework for evaluating aquatic ecosystem connectivity

The connectivity framework describes a process for systematically and transparently working through the connectivity of relevant functions of an aquatic ecosystem, and provides a way of understanding and applying connectivity at any level of spatial scale for any management outcome.

The framework was developed through expert workshops involving policy makers and scientists from a wide range of disciplines from state, local and federal government bodies and universities.

Walking the landscape—A whole-of-system framework for understanding and mapping environmental processes and values

The 'Walking the landscape' framework integrates existing data with expert knowledge to develop a whole-of-system map linked to conceptual models showing how the environment functions. The method addresses one of the major criticisms of broadscale mapping—the lack of integration of knowledge from local experts into datasets used by decision makers.

The method itself is quite flexible and can be applied:

  • for a holistic overview of environmental function, e.g. the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority’s coastal ecosystems program
  • to develop more technical mapping products, e.g. groundwater dependent ecosystem mapping
  • as community engagement tools for management and planning outcomes, e.g. wetland and floodplain resilience conceptual modelling.

Additional information

Walking the Landscape catchment stories.

A new type of river management is coming!

A short animation film on river management by the Rhone Mediterranean Corsica water Agency.

The European River Restoration Community of Practice in partnership with the Environment Agency and Agence de l'eau Rhone Méditarranée Corse

Duration 3m 30s


Last updated: 22 March 2013

This page should be cited as:

Connectivity and the landscape, WetlandInfo, Department of Environment and Science, Queensland, viewed 7 September 2018, <https://wetlandinfo.des.qld.gov.au/wetlands/ecology/landscape/>.

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment and Science