Dominance of autochthonous autotrophic carbon in food webs of heterotrophic rivers


  • James H. Thorp,

  • Michael D. Delong


This paper addresses the river heterotrophy paradox, “How can animal biomass within riverine food webs be fueled primarily by autochthonous autotrophic production if the ecosystem as a whole is heterotrophic?”. Reviewed, stable isotope data from tropical, temperate, and arctic rivers provide evidence consistent with the revised riverine productivity model (RPM): “The primary, annual energy source supporting overall metazoan production and species diversity in mid- to higher-trophic levels of most rivers (≥4th order) is autochthonous primary production entering food webs via algal-grazer and decomposer pathways”. The revised RPM does not conflict with the heterotrophy paradox because: (a) the decomposer (microbial loop) food pathway processes most of the transported, allochthonous and autochthonous carbon and, with algal respiration in some cases, is primarily responsible for a river's heterotrophic state (P/R<1); but (b) biomass production of mid- to higher-trophic levels is principally supported by an algal-grazer (phytoplankton and benthic microalgae) pathway that is only weakly linked to the decomposer pathway. The reason the algal-grazer pathway supports the majority of metazoan biomass is that allochthonous carbon is mostly recalcitrant, whereas carbon from autochthonous primary production, though much less plentiful, is commonly more labile (easier to assimilate), contains more energy per unit mass, and is typically preferred by metazoa.