Revisiting the fates of dead leaves that fall into streams

Published by Stephanie Mayer on

As terrestrial leaf litter decomposes in rivers, its constituent elements follow multiple pathways. Carbon leached as dissolved organic matter can be quickly taken up by microbes, then respired before it can be transferred to the macroscopic food web. Alternatively, this detrital carbon can be ingested and assimilated by aquatic invertebrates, so it is retained longer in the stream and transferred to higher trophic levels. Microbial growth on litter can affect invertebrates through three pathways, which are not mutually exclusive. First, microbes can facilitate invertebrate feeding, improving food quality by conditioning leaves and making them more palatable for invertebrates. Second, microbes can be prey for invertebrates. Third, microbes can compete with invertebrates for resources bound within litter and may produce compounds that retard carbon and nitrogen fluxes to invertebrates. As litter is broken down into smaller particles, there are many opportunities for its elements to reenter the stream food web. Here, I describe a conceptual framework for evaluating how traits of leaf litter will affect its fate in food webs and ecosystems that is useful for predicting how global change will alter carbon fluxes into and out of streams.