Groundbreaking Research

River Continuum Concept

At the end of the Rockefeller study, Stroud Water Research Center invited water researchers from across the country to a two-day conference. It was here that Robin Vannote presented his hypothesis that was to have a deep impact on aquatic studies.

Drawing on biological, chemical and physical studies that ranged from Ruth Patrick’s “ecosystem approach” to a river’s biology to Luna Leopold’s recent formula for predicting its physical pattern, Vannote and his colleagues added a critical element to the puzzle of how streams work.

They argued that a river’s biological and chemical processes correspond to its physical attributes, and that the nature of biological communities changes in a downstream direction just as the river itself does. This means that the structure of the biological communities is also predictable and that the communities adapt to the particular conditions of a stretch of stream.

A river is more than the sum of its parts, Vannote asserted. It is not a static body of water. It is a single continuum that flows ceaselessly from its source to the sea. To understand what is happening at any point along the way, you must understand both what is happening upstream and what is entering from the watershed.

The River Continuum Concept was the first unified hypothesis about how streams and their watersheds work. It dominated river studies for the next decade, and it established Stroud Water Research Center as a pioneer in innovative research.


Vannote, R.L., G.W. Minshall, K.W. Cummings, J.R. Sedell, and C.E. Cushing. 1980. The River Continuum Concept. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 37:130-137.