Biomorphodynamics: physical-biological feedbacks that shape landscapes

A.B. Murray, Michiel Knaapen, M. Tal, M.L. Kirwan

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Plants and animals affect morphological evolution in many environments. The term “ecogeomorphology” describes studies that address such effects. In this opinion article we use the term “biomorphodynamics” to characterize a subset of ecogeomorphologic studies: those that investigate not only the effects of organisms on physical processes and morphology but also how the biological processes depend on morphology and physical forcing. The two-way coupling precipitates feedbacks, leading to interesting modes of behavior, much like the coupling between flow/sediment transport and morphology leads to rich morphodynamic behaviors. Select examples illustrate how even the basic aspects of some systems cannot be understood without considering biomorphodynamic coupling. Prominent examples include the dynamic interactions between vegetation and flow/sediment transport that can determine river channel patterns and the multifaceted biomorphodynamic feedbacks shaping tidal marshes and channel networks. These examples suggest that the effects of morphology and physical processes on biology tend to operate over the timescale of the evolution of the morphological pattern. Thus, in field studies, which represent a snapshot in the pattern evolution, these effects are often not as obvious as the effects of biology on physical processes. However, numerical modeling indicates that the influences on biology from physical processes can play a key role in shaping landscapes and that even local and temporary vegetation disturbances can steer large-scale, long-term landscape evolution. The prevalence of biomorphodynamic research is burgeoning in recent years, driven by societal need and a confluence of complex systems–inspired modeling approaches in ecology and geomorphology. To make fundamental progress in understanding the dynamics of many landscapes, our community needs to increasingly learn to look for two-way, biomorphodynamic feedbacks and to collect new types of data to support the modeling of such emergent interactions.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberW11301
Pages (from-to)-
Number of pages18
JournalWater resources research
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • IR-86552
  • Biogeomorphology
  • ecogeomorphology
  • METIS-252854
  • landscape evolution
  • complex systems
  • ecomorphodynamics


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