1. We used a litter bag technique to assess the effect of catchment land-use (forest, wetland, agriculture, urban) on the processing of red maple (Acer rubrum L.) litter in 17 streams in Maine, U.S.A. Litter processing by fungi was predicted to increase with nutrient concentrations along a gradient of land use, from relatively unmodified to highly modified. Litter processing by litter-shredding macroinvertebrates was predicted to decline along this gradient because of a decline in their taxonomic richness and biomass.
2. Land use was associated with the anticipated gradient in nutrient and macroinvertebrate attributes, and a significant relationship was found between land use and nitrate concentration. There was, however, no significant relationship between land use and soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) concentration. Similarly, shredder taxonomic richness was significantly related to land use type, whereas shredder biomass showed no significant relationship to land use.
3. Attributes of the shredder assemblage structure and nutrient concentrations were both strong determinants of litter processing. Increasing biomass and taxonomic richness of shredders was significantly related to increasing rates of litter mass loss. Increasing concentrations of nitrate and SRP were significantly related to increasing rates of litter softening below threshold concentrations (approximately 0.20 mg NO3-N L–1 and 5 μg SRP L–1).
4. The potentially additive effects of nitrate and SRP concentrations or shredder richness and biomass on litter processing rates were confounded by the lack of significant correlation between these pairs of variables. Consequently, rates of litter processing (as rates of softening or mass loss) did not vary systematically among different land use regimes.