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Flow regime change alters shredder identity but not leaf litter decomposition in headwater streams affected by severe, permanent drying

Carey, N., Chester, E.T. and Robson, B.J. (2021) Flow regime change alters shredder identity but not leaf litter decomposition in headwater streams affected by severe, permanent drying. Freshwater Biology . Early View.

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Climate change is altering hydrologic regimes globally. In the Mediterranean climate region of south-western Australia (SWA), climate drying has caused many perennial streams to switch to intermittent flow regimes. Shifts in flow regime are expected to alter physical and biological processes in streams, including litter decomposition, which is the basis of detrital food webs.

Decomposition of jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) leaves and associated macroinvertebrates, were measured over 320 days in 2018–19 using leaf bags in four headwater streams in SWA. Two streams retained perennial reaches and two were formerly perennial streams that are now intermittent. Pre-planned comparisons that formed a partial multiple before–after, control–impact design were used to compare the results to an experiment conducted in 1982–83 in some of the same streams when all were perennially flowing. Both experiments used coarse and fine-mesh bags containing 10 g of dry leaves.

In one perennial stream, coarse bags lost more weight than fine bags at the last sampling time only, when shredding caddisflies arrived on the leaf bags. In the other perennial stream, leaf-mining chironomids entered fine-mesh bags and accelerated decomposition so that they lost more weight than the coarse-mesh bags. There was no difference in weight loss between fine and coarse-mesh leaf bags in the two intermittent streams.

In 2018–19, decomposition was slower in dry reaches of intermittent streams than in perennial reaches. Leaf weight loss increased with the resumption of flow in intermittent streams, so that by the end of the experiment, similar amounts of leaf weight had been lost in intermittent and perennial reaches. Thus, although the temporal pattern of decomposition differed between intermittent and perennial reaches, after 320 days, they had reached a similar endpoint.

Over similar experimental duration, mean leaf weight remaining in perennial reaches at the end of the experiment did not differ between the 1982–83 study and 2018–19, showing that leaf decomposition had not changed in reaches that retained perennial flow. As mean leaf weight remaining also did not differ between intermittent and perennial streams in 2018–19, leaf decomposition was robust to flow regime change. However, since 1982–83, these streams have lost populations of shredding caddisflies and stoneflies, which were replaced by other shredders (e.g. leaf mining chironomids Stenochironomus sp.), showing that there was some redundancy amongst shredder species.

As climate change progresses, drying flow regimes will become commonplace in Mediterranean (and other) climate regions globally. This study indicates that litter decomposition may be maintained as streams transition to intermittency although shredder species may change. However, the impact of shredding species on leaf decomposition varies amongst studies, so effects of the loss of shredder species sensitive to drying may also vary, and in some cases their loss may substantially alter ecosystem processes.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Centre for Sustainable Aquatic Ecosystems
Harry Butler Institute
Publisher: Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Copyright: © 2021 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
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