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Did you know that not all rivers and streams flow all year round? In fact, most of the world’s rivers are ‘temporary rivers’ – on every continent, many ecosystems from small headwaters to large lowland rivers sometimes stop flowing. When this happens, their surface waters isolate into pools or may be lost completely, leaving a dry bed. This happens naturally in response to climate and geology, and increasingly due to human activities.

Despite their prevalence and unique biodiversity, these rivers are amongst the most understudied and under-protected in the world. Why?

One reason may be that people know and care more about ‘perennial rivers’, which always flow. However, there is little scientific evidence for this difference in attitudes, or understanding of whether learning about the environment might help change peoples’ opinions.

Dr Catherine Leigh and colleagues investigated attitudes towards temporary and perennial rivers, and the effect that education had on those attitudes. They surveyed university students enrolled in undergraduate degrees in Australia, the UK and USA at the start and end of courses of environmental education.

Among these students, who probably had some pre-existing interest in and awareness of the environment, attitudes towards temporary rivers were positive – but not as positive as attitudes towards perennial rivers, especially when temporary rivers stopped flowing.

In particular, students tended to think that non-flowing temporary rivers had little aesthetic or recreational amenity,” said Dr Leigh. “The good news is that attitudes towards these rivers improved after students finished courses of environmental education, even when those courses weren’t about rivers,” she said.

This finding is important, because students’ attitudes towards rivers may affect their future work in environmental science and management. The study also suggests that general education about the environment, if provided to the wider community, may improve attitudes towards temporary rivers and provide impetus to support their protection and management.

As Dr Leigh says, temporary rivers contribute to local and global biodiversity and play important roles in our environment, even when they’re not flowing. Dr Leigh and her colleagues encourage everyone to learn more about them.