1. The flow of energy through food webs with similar species can vary with both space and time. The river continuum concept (RCC) provides a useful framework for predicting variability in the biota and food availability along streams. We estimated the flow of organic matter (g m−2 year−1) through food webs, arrayed along a stream, that had different resource inputs. Four sites were sampled along the Little Tennessee River, North Carolina, U.S.A.: two fifth order sites, one sixth and one seventh order site. The dominant resource is leaf detritus in the upstream reach (the upstream fifth order site), algae in the mid-reaches (the downstream fifth and sixth order sites), and suspended material downstream (seventh order site).
2. Eleven genera, contributing from 50 to 66% of the total macroinvertebrate secondary production of each site, were studied. We estimated organic matter flow from resource to consumer by combining previously measured rates of invertebrate secondary production with gut content analyses and assimilation efficiencies.
3. Organic matter flow through food webs increased in a downstream direction, while the structure of the food webs remained constant. The total food consumed by the taxa analysed increased from 34 g m−2 year−1 at the upstream site to 730 g m−2 year−1 at the most downstream site. We estimate that the organic matter consumed by the entire macroinvertebrate community ranged from 66 to 1164 g m−2 year−1. These results indicate that there is variation in the magnitude of organic matter flow through the food webs along this river continuum.
4. The dominant food resource consumed also changed along the gradient. Leaf detritus consumption decreased from 58% of the total consumption upstream to 6% downstream, whereas consumption of amorphous detritus increased from 18 to 64%. The proportion of animal material consumed also increased from 3 to 27%. The total consumption of autochthonous resources (diatoms and filamentous algae) increased along the continuum (from 6.41 to 34.05 g m−2 year−1). We conclude that these results are related to variation in resource availability, dietary shifts and invertebrate secondary production. These results link resource availability to energy flow, a relationship originally suggested by the RCC.