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River networks as ecological corridors for biodiversity, populations and waterborne disease (RINEC)

Final Report Summary - RINEC (River networks as ecological corridors for biodiversity, populations and waterborne disease (RINEC))

The ERC Advanced Grant RINEC aimed at providing broad scientific perspectives in the ecohydrological studies of the river basin seen as the environmental matrix for propagation of species, populations and pathogens of water-borne disease. The main research questions addressed were: How does connectivity within a river network (and the complex intertwined patterns of human mobility) affect the emergent spreading of water-borne disease infections like cholera? Would spatially explicit modelling approaches endow predictions with unheard predictive abilities? Does the river basin act as a template for biodiversity? Are there demonstrable and predictive hydrologic controls on the spreading of biological invasions? To answer such questions, the project, through direct (in the EPFL laboratory) and field data collections and comparative mathematical analyses, addressed the study of: biodiversity in the river basin; metapopulation persistence and species spread in river networks; incipient and unfolding cholera epidemics predicted by spatially explicit approaches embedding GIS information; generalized reproduction numbers and patterns of waterborne disease; biological invasions of foreign species along river networks, like the Zebra mussel invasion of the Mississippi-Missouri river system; emerging predictable features of replicated, noisy biological invasion fronts in the laboratory; large-scale transport of passive and reactive matter through the river basin. The key example of the relevance of the RINEC research, is the recognition -- on theoretical and observational grounds -- of the nature and the extent of hydrologic controls on the spreading of water-borne disease, typically (and timely) cholera epidemics. A predictive tool of key features of unfolding epidemics – like for instance the total number of infected individuals, their spatial location and the timing of the infection peaks – either as a function of hydrologic variables (like seasonally varying pools of resources for pathogens to disperse, or lifetimes of pathogens) or of human mobility patterns have an obviously large societal impact -- in particular as the populations exposed to water-borne disease typically live in poverty. Another key research question concerns an assessment of the validity of neutral ecological theory (where all species are equally capable of dispersing, colonizing and reproducing) to explain biodiversity in the presence of highly non-neutral constraints like the ones provided by the directional dispersal imposed by the fluvial corridors. To that end the RINEC research has contributed visibly, finding roles for a diverse suite of ecosystems.

The output of the 5-year project is subsumed by about 85 peer-reviewed papers appeared (at a rate of approximately 17/year) in international journals (the standard editorial outlets are the leading hydrological journals like Water Resources Research, Advances in Water resources, Ecohydrology, Geophysical Research Letters), some of which are high-impact ones (like PNAS, Ecology Letters, Annals of Internal Medicine, the American Naturalist, Journal of the Royal Society Interface).

The main scientific results relate to the interrelations between hydrology, geomorphology and ecology and on the hydrologic variables that drive and control biodiversity patterns.