After decades of stressor research in urban estuarine ecosystems the focus is still on single stressors: a systematic literature review and meta-analysis

A. L. O'Brien*, K. A. Dafforn, A. A. Chariton, E. L. Johnston, M. Mayer-Pinto

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    45 Citations (Scopus)


    Natural systems are threatened by a variety of anthropogenic stressors and so understanding the interactive threats posed by multiple stressors is essential. In this study we focused on urban stressors that are ubiquitous to urban estuarine systems worldwide: elevated nutrients, toxic chemical contaminants, built infrastructure and non-indigenous species (NIS). We investigated structural (abundance, diversity and species richness) and functional endpoints (productivity, primary production (chlorophyll-a) and metabolism) commonly used to determine responses to these selected stressors. Through a systematic review of global literature, we found 579 studies of our selected stressors; 93% measured responses to a single stressor, with few assessing the effects of multiple stressors (7%). Structural endpoints were commonly used to measure the effects of stressors (49% of the total 579 studies). Whereas, functional endpoints were rarely assessed alone (10%) but rather in combination with structural endpoints (41%). Elevated nutrients followed by NIS were the most studied single stressors (43% and 16% of the 541 single stressor studies), while elevated nutrients and toxic contaminants were overwhelmingly the most common stressor combination (79% of the 38 multiple stressor studies); with NIS and built infrastructure representing major gaps in multi-stressor research. In the meta-analysis, structural endpoints tended to decrease, while functional endpoints increased and/or decreased in response to different types of organisms or groups. We predicted an antagonistic effect of elevated nutrients and toxic contaminants based on the opposing enriching versus toxic effects of this stressor combination. Of note, biodiversity was the only endpoint that revealed such an antagonistic response. Our results highlight the continuing paucity of multiple stressor studies and provide evidence for opposing patterns in the responses to single and interacting stressors depending on the measured endpoint. The latter is of significant consequence to understanding relevant impacts of stressors in coastal monitoring and management.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)753-764
    Number of pages12
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Early online date13 Feb 2019
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Sept 2019


    • Built infrastructure
    • Contaminants
    • Function
    • Invasive species
    • Nutrients
    • Structure


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