“Our study focused on a single stream in isolation, but this process of drying and local extinction is happening across the desert Southwest,” Bogan said. “Eventually this could lead to the loss of species from the entire region, or the complete extinction of species that rely on these desert oases.”

Small streams such as this are of particular interest because they can be more easily observed and studied than larger rivers and streams, and may represent a microcosm of similar effects that are taking place across much of the American West, the researchers said. The speed and suddenness of some changes give species inadequate time to adapt.

“It’s like comparing old-growth forests to second-growth forests,” Lytle said. “There are still trees, but it’s not the same ecosystem it used to be. These desert streams can be a window to help us see forces that are at work all around us, whether it’s due to climate change, land management or other factors.”

The researchers noted in their report that the last 30 years have been marked by a significant increase in drought severity in the Southwest. The drought that helped dry up French Joe Canyon in 2005 resulted in the lowest flow in Arizona streams in 60 years, and in many cases the lowest on record. At French Joe Canyon, the stream channel was completely dry to bedrock, leaving many aquatic invertebrates dead in the sediments.

That was probably “an unprecedent disturbance,” the researchers said in their report. Community composition shifted dramatically, with longer-lived insects dying out and smaller, shorter-lived ones taking their places.

Conceptually similar events have taken place in the past in plant communities in the Florida Everglades, floodplains in Australia, and boreal forests following fire disturbance, other researchers have found. In the Southwest, climate change models predict longer, more frequent and more intense droughts in the coming century, the scientists noted in their study.