The importance of terrestrial subsidies in stream food webs varies along a stream size gradient

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Abstract

Cross system subsidies of energy and materials can be a substantial fraction of food web fluxes in ecosystems, especially when autochthonous production is strongly limited by light or nutrients. We explored whether assimilation of terrestrial energy varied in specific consumer taxa collected from streams of different sizes and resource availabilities. Since headwater streams are often unproductive, we expected that inputs from surrounding terrestrial systems (i.e. leaf litter, terrestrial invertebrates) would be a more important food source for consumers than in mid-size rivers that have more open canopies and higher amounts of primary production available for consumers. We collected basal resources, invertebrates, and fish along a gradient in stream size in the Adirondack Mountains (NY, USA) and in Trinidad and Tobago and analyzed all samples for hydrogen isotopes as a means of differentiating biomass derived from allochthonous versus autochthonous sources. We found significant differences in allochthonous energy use within individual consumer taxa, showing that some taxa range from being entirely allochthonous to entirely autochthonous depending on where they were collected on the stream size gradient (grazers and collector–gatherer functional feeding groups), while other taxa are relatively fixed in the source of energy they assimilate (shredder and predator functional feeding groups). Consistent with expectations, allochthonous energy use was positively correlated with canopy cover in both regions for most feeding groups, with individuals from small, shaded streams having a more pronounced allochthonous signal than individuals collected from larger streams with less canopy cover. However, consumers in the shredder/detritivore feeding group did not vary among sites in their allochthonous energy use, and had a mostly allochthonous signal regardless of canopy cover and algal biomass. Our results demonstrate that the importance of energy from terrestrial subsidies can vary markedly but are similar in both temperate and tropical streams, suggesting a widely consistent pattern.

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