Environmental Health - Toxic Substances Hydrology Program

EH Science Feature Email Signup

In-Stream Toxicity Tests

A stream with white water tanks on the side and small exposure containers
A team of USGS scientists and their colleagues conducted an experiment to compare the survival of trout fry (newly hatched fish) exposed to constant versus varying metal concentrations, Dry Fork Belt Creek, Montana. Water stored in the streamside tanks was used to refresh plastic containers in the stream. Water in the tanks had high, medium, or low metal concentrations. The fourth tank contained metal-free water used as an experimental control. The most upstream (at bottom of photo) group of containers were perforated so dissolved metal concentrations would fluctuate naturally as they do in the stream.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists and their colleagues conducted toxicity tests in two Montana streams to compare the survival of westslope cutthroat trout, which were exposed to dissolved metal concentrations that either exhibited the natural diel variation in streams or were held constant. The diel changes in cadmium and zinc concentrations in the two streams increased each night by as much as 61 and 125 percent, respectively, and decreased a corresponding amount the next day during the 4-day tests. Cadmium concentrations in the two streams ranged from approximately 2 to 4 micrograms per liter (mg/L), which spanned the site-specific acute water-quality criteria of 2.3 to 2.5 mg/L. On the other hand, zinc concentrations ranged from approximately 270 to 750 mg/L, which was above the site-specific acute water-quality criteria of approximately 140 mg/L.

Results of the Tests

Results for both streams showed that survival was significantly higher after exposure to natural diel-fluctuating metal concentrations than to a constant concentration about equal to the average metal concentration in the diel-fluctuating exposure. Survival likely was greater for the fish exposed to the diel fluctuations because the periods of lower metal concentrations provided some relief for the fish. In addition, toxicity during periods of higher metal concentrations was lessened by the simultaneous occurrence each night of lower water temperature, which reduces the rate of metal uptake. Based on this initial study, current water-quality criteria appear to be protective for streams with diel concentration cycles of cadmium and zinc. Water-resource managers and environmental regulators can potentially use this information to develop sound policies regarding stream fisheries and water-quality criteria.

Back to Fish Exposed to Daily Cycles of Dissolved Metals Show Lower Mortality Rates headline.


Nimick, D.A., Harper, D.D., Farag, A.M., Cleasby, T.E., MacConnell, E., and Skaar, D., 2007, Influence of in-stream diel concentration cycles of dissolved trace metals on acute toxicity to one-year-old cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki lewisi): Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, v. 26, no. 12, p. 2667-2678, doi:10.1897/07-265.

More Information

Related Science Features


More Science Features


USGS Home Water Land Resources Science Systems Ecosystems Energy and Minerals Environmental Health Hazards

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

USA.gov logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page URL: toxics.usgs.gov/highlights/in-stream_tests.html
Page Content Contact Information: webmaster@toxics.usgs.gov
Page Last Modified: 27-Jun-2018 @ 07:15:38 PM EDT