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Student Worksheet

Human Activities and River Health

PDF version of the worksheet.


Diane Pathy © Canadian Museum of Nature


The Rideau River in Ottawa, Ontario.

Rivers are freshwater ecosystems. This means that they contain water with less than 0.5 parts per thousand of dissolved salt, and provide habitat for many plants and animals. These plants and animals make up river biodiversity.

The term biodiversity comes from the words biological and diversity. It means "variety of life". Biodiversity refers to all the living things (including plants, animals and micro-organisms) and their unique characteristics, in a particular place. At the largest scale, it includes all life on the planet.

Species diversity refers to the variety of species in a given area, and is the most common type of biodiversity talked about. Other levels of biodiversity include ecosystem diversity, which refers to habitats, living communities and ecological processes, and genetic diversity, which refers to the genetic characteristics within a species.

iStockphoto.com/Arpad Benedek



Why is river biodiversity important? Biodiversity provides us with inspiration, beauty and wonder, and it represents life that has evolved so that it is in balance with its environment. Ecosystems depend on the combined contributions and interactions of the individual organisms within them, and the loss of any species can prevent that ecosystem from operating optimally. Furthermore, an ecosystem with a high level of biodiversity is more resistant to environmental changes.

River biodiversity also provides us with food, materials and medicines, as well as recreational and economic opportunities. It also helps clean the air and filter water. A biodiverse river contributes to good water quality, which is important to farms, businesses and homes.



Great Blue Heron.

What can affect biodiversity in rivers? There are many factors. Species need an acceptable range of temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen and mineral levels. Latitude—the distance north or south of the equator—affects temperatures, although biodiversity is affected by latitude to a much higher degree in terrestrial ecosystems than it is in freshwater ecosystems. This is because of the lesser amount of nutrients available to terrestrial species, as well as the extreme temperature changes that make higher latitudes on land a much more difficult place than water for living things to exist.

Biodiversity in rivers can also be affected by human activities that change the levels of chemical or biological components in the water. This is often the result of leaching from industrial, agricultural or urban sources, and alteration to the shoreline and river flow.

Activity 1: Types of Water Pollution

Diane Martz © Frenchman River Biodiversity Project


Taking water samples from the Frenchman River, Saskatchewan.

Visit the pages about water quality in the website The Nature of the Rideau River, and look for the answers to the questions below.

1.1 Name four components (chemical and biological) found in natural bodies of water.

1.2 What happens when there is too much nitrogen and phosphorus in a river?

1.3 What are two sources of increased nitrogen and phosphorus in a river that result from human activities?

1.4 How do pesticides affect aquatic plants and animals?

1.5 List four possible sources of harmful bacteria in a river.

1.6 What could cause the level of dissolved oxygen in water to become dangerously low for fish and other organisms?

1.7 Where might excessive amounts of metals found in a river come from?

Activity 2: Impacts on Rivers from Human Activities

2.1 Research a negative impact on river biodiversity resulting from a human activity, and complete a written report based on a minimum of three sources of information. The report must be two to three pages long and include:

a) an overview of the problem that you are researching
b) specific examples and data
c) a summary of the data
d) recommendations of what must be done to counteract the problem
e) a list of references. 

2.2 Prepare to present your report to the rest of your class. You can use slides, photos, video, audio, posters or other teacher-approved media.


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