Abstract Fluvial systems include natural and human-created barriers that modify local base level; as such, these discontinuities alter the longitudinal flux of water and sediment by storing, releasing, or changing the flow path of those materials. Even in the absence of distinct barriers, fluvial systems are typically discontinuous and patchy. The size of fluvial discontinuities ranges across scales from 100m, such as riffles, to 104m, such as lava dams or major landslides. The frequency of occurrence appears to be inversely related to size, with creation and failure of the small features, such as beaver dams, occurring on a time scale of 100 to 101years and a frequency of occurrence at scales as low as 101m. In contrast, larger scale discontinuities, such as lava dams, can last for time scales up to 105years and have a frequency of occurrence of approximately 104m. The heterogeneity generated by features is an essential part of river networks and should be considered as part of river management. Therefore, we suggest that “natural” dams are a useful analog for human dams when evaluating options for river restoration. This collection of papers on the studies of natural dams includes bedrock barriers, log jams and beaver dams. The collection also addresses the discontinuity generated by a floodplain — in the absence of an obvious barrier in the channel — and tools for evaluation of riverbed heterogeneity. It is completed with a study of impact of human dams on floodplain sedimentation. These papers will help geomorphologists and river managers understand the factors that control river heterogeneity across scales and around the world.