Analysis of 13,312 benthic invertebrate samples from German streams reveals minor deviations in ecological status class between abundance and presence/absence data
Benthic invertebrates are the most commonly used organisms used to assess ecological status as required by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD). For WFD-compliant assessments, benthic invertebrate communities are sampled, identified and counted. Taxa × abundance matrices are used to calculate indices and the resulting scores are compared to reference values to determine the ecological status class. DNA-based tools, such as DNA metabarcoding, provide a new and precise method for species identification but cannot deliver robust abundance data. To evaluate the applicability of DNA-based tools to ecological status assessment, we evaluated whether the results derived from presence/absence data are comparable to those derived from abundance data. We analysed benthic invertebrate community data obtained from 13,312 WFD assessments of German streams. Broken down to 30 official stream types, we compared assessment results based on abundance and presence/absence data for the assessment modules "organic pollution" (i.e., the saprobic index) and "general degradation" (a multimetric index) as well as their underlying metrics. In 76.6% of cases, the ecological status class did not change after transforming abundance data to presence/absence data. In 12% of cases, the status class was reduced by one (e.g., from good to moderate), and in 11.2% of cases, the class increased by one. In only 0.2% of cases, the status shifted by two classes. Systematic stream type-specific deviations were found and differences between abundance and presence/absence data were most prominent for stream types where abundance information contributed directly to one or several metrics of the general degradation module. For a single stream type, these deviations led to a systematic shift in status from 'good' to 'moderate' (n = 201; with only n = 3 increasing). The systematic decrease in scores was observed, even when considering simulated confidence intervals for abundance data. Our analysis suggests that presence/absence data can yield similar assessment results to those for abundance-based data, despite type-specific deviations. For most metrics, it should be possible to intercalibrate the two data types without substantial efforts. Thus, benthic invertebrate taxon lists generated by standardised DNA-based methods should be further considered as a complementary approach.