Organic matter flow in stream food webs with reduced detrital resource base

Robert O. Hall, J. Bruce Wallace, Susan L. Eggert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

212 Scopus citations


Food webs based on flows of organic matter were developed for two small streams to examine food web response to a large reduction in detrital inputs. At the study site, Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in the southern Appalachians, leaf litter inputs and associated microbial assemblages are the main energy source for food webs in headwater streams. We eliminated leaf litter inputs to one stream using a net placed over the first 180 m of stream from its origin. Food webs based on flow of organic matter were developed for a reference stream and the litter-excluded stream for two months, July and December of year 1 of the litter exclusion, to examine effects of leaf litter exclusion on the trophic base of the food web, size distribution of flows, predator-prey interactions, and trophic structure. Flows (mg AFDM·m-2·d-1; AFDM = ash-free dry mass) were estimated using gut content analyses for detritus and prey items, coupled with secondary production estimates. We used a whole-stream 13C tracer method to estimate assimilation of bacteria by invertebrates. The food webs encompassed most (84-91%) of invertebrate secondary production, but <30% of the estimated total links. The primary sources of organic matter for the food web in the reference stream were leaf tissue, bacterial carbon, and animal prey, with ∼25-30% of total secondary production derived from each. In-stream primary production led to <1% of invertebrate secondary production. A higher fraction of food web production in the litter-excluded stream was derived from wood. Magnitudes of detrital flows were lower in the litter-excluded stream, and some taxa were missing compared to the reference stream. The fraction of predator ingestion approached 100% of total secondary production for both streams, but this predation was distributed diffusely among several taxa. Flows to predators were fewer and smaller in the litter-excluded stream, yet these flows had higher per-biomass consumption coefficients, suggesting stronger interactions among the remaining common taxa. These food webs enabled us to examine interactions among taxa in the streams; hence, we found responses of the stream ecosystem to litter-exclusion that we would not have considered had we only measured changes in invertebrate population sizes or system-level changes in organic matter flow.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3445-3463
Number of pages19
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2000


  • Bacteria
  • Coweeta hydrologic laboratory
  • Detritivory
  • Detritus
  • Food webs
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • North carolina
  • Organic matter flow
  • Predation
  • Resource redaction
  • Streams


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