Aquatic ecosystems of highland rivers are different from those of low altitude rivers because of the specific topography and environmental parameters associated with high altitudes. Yalutsangpo, the upper course of the Brahmaputra River, is the highest major river in the world, flowing from west to east across Tibet, China and pouring into India. Macroinvertebrates were sampled from Yalutsangpo and its tributaries, the Lhasa, Niyang, and Parlong Tsangpo Rivers, from October 2009 to June 2010, to study characters of the highland aquatic ecosystem. Altogether, 110 macroinvertebrate taxa belonging to 57 families and 102 genera were identified from the basin. The biodiversity and composition of macroinvertebrate assemblages were strongly affected by altitude gradients. Local diversity represented by taxa richness and the improved Shannon-Wiener index were high at altitudes of 3,300–3,700 m, among which suitability of habitat was higher due to the better integrated environmental conditions of water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and aquatic vegetation, etc. Macroinvertebrates were grouped into shredders, scrapers, predators, collector-filterers, and collector-gatherers according to their feeding behaviors. It was found that the distributions of the functional feeding groups varied with habitat altitudes. Shredders were present at altitudes of 2,900–4,400 m, while scrapers mainly inhabited altitudes of 3,500–4,500 m, and collector-?lterers preferred 3,500–4,000 m.
Even though the local taxa richness was not high at each site, the taxonomic composition and density of the assemblages varied greatly among the different sites, resulting in much higher regional diversity compared to the lowland river with similar flow and substrate conditions. The regional cumulative taxa richness of Yalutsangpo decreased and more families were lost as the altitude increased. However, some families that were newly present as the attitude increased were essential for sustaining the high regional biodiversity. The ordination diagram obtained from Detrended Correspondence Analysis indicated that altitude, river pattern, riverbed structures, bank structures, and flow conditions were the main factors that influenced the macroinvertebrate assemblages in the Yalutsangpo basin.