Summer drought disturbance on plant detritus decomposition processes in three River Tirso (Sardinia, Italy) sub-basins

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Here, we study the variation patterns of detritus decomposition along a river continuum in a Mediterranean type river basin, and the influence of summer drought disturbance on this pattern. The study was carried out in three 4th order sub-basins (hereafter referred to as Assolo, Laconi and Olzai) of the river Tirso basin (Sardinia, ITALY), with one study site per stream order in each sub-basin (4 stream orders × 3 sub-basins = 12 study sites). The three sub-basins were selected according to their exposure to summer drought, Assolo being the most exposed and Laconi the least exposed. Reed (Phragmites australis (Cav.) Steudel) detritus decomposition was studied during the fall and spring periods, utilising the leaf packs technique with 3 sampling dates and 8 replicate packs per sample in each period. At all sites, the stream width was recorded fortnightly for one year. Overall, the reed leaf packs underwent rapid decomposition in the river Tirso basin (k=0.0193 d-1), but very high variation was observed among leaf pack decomposition rates (C.V. = 112.7%). Seasons, sub-basins, and stream orders accounted for 88% of the total variance observed (Three Way ANOVA). The decomposition rate was significantly higher in spring than in fall, in the Laconi sub-basin than in the Olzai and Assolo sub-basins, and in 4th order streams than in 2nd and 3rd. Decomposition rates were also higher at relatively undisturbed sites than at the study sites exposed to complete summer desiccation (e.g., 2nd, 3rd, 4th in the Olzai sub-basin; 1st, 2nd, 3rd in the Assolo sub-basin). The strongest effects of summer drought disturbance occurred at the lowest order stream branches (i.e., 1st and 2nd order) suggesting that the resilience of detritus decomposition processes to the disturbance arising from Mediterranean type climates increases with stream order.

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