• cyanobacteria;
  • dryland rivers;
  • phytoplankton;
  • primary production;
  • stable isotope analysis;
  • waterholes

SUMMARY 1. Many Australian inland rivers are characterised by vast floodplains with a network of anastomosing channels that interconnect only during unpredictable flooding. For much of the time, however, rivers are reduced to a string of disconnected and highly turbid waterholes. Given these features, we predicted that aquatic primary production would be light-limited and the riverine food web would be dependent on terrestrial carbon from floodplain exchanges and direct riparian inputs.

2. To test these predictions, we measured rates of benthic primary production and respiration and sampled primary sources of organic carbon and consumers for stable isotope analysis in several river waterholes at four locations in the Cooper Creek system in central Australia.

3. A conspicuous band of filamentous algae was observed along the shallow littoral zone of the larger waterholes. Despite the high turbidity, benthic gross primary production in this narrow zone was very high (1.7–3.6 g C m−2 day−1); about two orders of magnitude greater than that measured in the main channel.

4. Stable carbon isotope analysis confirmed that the band of algae was the major source of energy for aquatic consumers, ultimately supporting large populations of crustaceans and fish. Variation in the stable carbon and nitrogen isotope signatures of consumers suggested that zooplankton was the other likely major source.

5. Existing ecosystem models of large rivers often emphasise the importance of longitudinal or lateral inputs of terrestrial organic matter as a source of organic carbon for aquatic consumers. Our data suggest that, despite the presence of large amounts of terrestrial carbon, there was no evidence of it being a significant contributor to the aquatic food web in this floodplain river system.