Do Alluvial Sand Dunes Create Energetic Refugia for Benthic Fishes? An Experimental Test with the Endangered Pallid Sturgeon

A. P. Porreca, W. D. Hintz, J. E. Garvey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


River modifications have altered critical habitats for fishes at a variety of spatial scales and caused global declines of many fluvial species. At small spatial scales (<1 m2), alluvial sand dunes, a ubiquitous habitat in highly modified rivers, are thought to provide energetic relief for benthic fishes in energetically costly riverine landscapes created by water flow. However, use of alluvial dune habitat is not well understood, and it is unclear whether dunes provide refuge that effectively reduces energetic costs. We designed a scale-relevant experiment to examine the energetic responses associated with sand dune habitat in rivers. We tested whether the US federally endangered pallid sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus albus), a benthic fish commonly associated with sand dunes, experienced reduced energetic costs with different configurations of simulated sand dune habitat. We quantified mass specific oxygen consumption (MO2; mg O2 kg−1 h−1) using intermittent flow-through respirometry for age-0 sturgeon (140–170 mm) in front of a sand dune, behind a sand dune and in the absence of a sand dune at two velocities (25 and 50 cm s−1) commonly observed in field studies of sturgeon habitat use. Sturgeon displayed distinct station holding behaviours for each habitat configuration. Dune location did not affect energy expenditure, but sturgeon MO2 was on average 16–20% higher in the absence of a sand dune depending on dune configuration. MO2 was on average 14% higher at 50 cm s−1 compared with 25 cm s−1. Our results provide a potential mechanism for over two decades of research on why sturgeon and other benthic fishes exhibit selection for sand dune habitat in large rivers. Fishes that select main channel habitats may depend on energetic relief provided by sand dunes, especially when other forms of structure are not available. For this reason, alluvial sand dune habitat may be important to the persistence of benthic fishes in high flow environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)690-696
Number of pages7
JournalRiver Research and Applications
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jun 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Mississippi River
  • Scaphirhynchus
  • alluvial
  • energetics
  • respirometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science(all)


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