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Effects of buried leaf litter and vertical hydrologic exchange on hyporheic water chemistry and fauna in a gravel-bed river in northern New South Wales, Australia

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Abstract

1. Large amounts of coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM) are buried in the sand and gravel beds of many rivers during spates. The effects of these patchily distributed resources on hyporheic invertebrates and water chemistry are poorly understood. Buried CPOM may provide local ‘hot-spots’ of food for hyporheic detritivores and their predators, alter nutrient supply to nearby sediment biofilms, and generate habitat for some invertebrates.

2. To examine potential short-term effects on hyporheic water chemistry, nutrient concentrations and invertebrate assemblage composition, leaf packs were buried in downwelling (surface water infiltrating the hyporheic zone) and upwelling (hyporheic water emerging to the surface) zones at two sites along a gravel-bed river in northern New South Wales. At one site, pits were excavated to simulate leaf burial (procedural control) and plastic ‘leaves’ were buried to test whether invertebrates might respond to leaves as refuges rather than food. Hyporheic CPOM, sediment size fractions, and interstitial silt content were also quantified at these sites.

3. Dry weights of naturally buried CPOM (leaf litter and wood fragments) varied substantially (0.6–71.7 g L–1 sediment). Amounts of CPOM did not differ between up- vs. downwelling zones or between sites. Hyporheic dissolved oxygen saturation was generally high (> 75%), and was lower in upwelling zones. The hyporheos was dominated taxonomically by water mites (≈ 20 species), whereas small oligochaetes were most abundant (40% of total abundance). Tiny instars of elmid beetle larvae and leptophlebiid mayfly nymphs were also common. Before experimental manipulation, faunal composition differed between up- and downwelling zones. In upwelling zones, bathynellaceans and blind peracarids were found, whereas small individuals of the surface benthos were common in samples from downwelling zones. This validated stratification of the experiment across zones of hydrologic exchange.

4. Twenty days after leaf burial, there was no effect of the treatments at either site on changes in most variables, including mean numbers of taxa and individuals per sample. Similarly, changes in faunal composition of the hyporheos in the treatments paralleled those in the controls except for a weak response in the buried leaves treatment in the upwelling zone at site 1. Artificially buried leaf litter does not seem to influence hyporheic water chemistry or fauna at these two sites. It is probable that naturally buried leaf litter is swiftly processed soon after entrainment and that repeating this experiment immediately after a flood may yield different results.

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