1. Microbes play key roles in nutrient transformation and organic matter mineralisation in the hyporheic zone but their short-term responses to diel variations in discharge and temperature are unknown. Rates of microbial esterase activity were hypothesised to vary vertically and along a gradient of moisture in a drying sand-bed stream where discharge fluctuated daily in response to evapotranspiration.
2. At ‘fully saturated’, ‘moist’ and ‘dry’ locations in three sites along a drying Australian sand-bed stream, microbial activity at three depths (surface, 10 and 30 cm) was assessed using fluorescein diacetate hydrolysis. Samples were collected in mid-summer in the late afternoon and again at dawn to assess diel variation in hydrolytic activity at each site and depth. Data loggers tracked diel variations in temperature at each depth.
3. Hydrolytic activity was up to 10-fold greater in the surface sediments in late afternoon than at dawn in all habitats, and was correlated with surface sediment temperature. Diel differences in activity were not detected at 10 cm, although daily thermal cycles were evident at this depth. Unexpectedly, activity was marginally higher at dawn at 30 cm in all habitats, perhaps reflecting lags in temperature at that depth.
4. Overall, microbial activity declined with depth, strongly correlated with vertical trends in total organic matter and concentrations of dissolved phosphorus. Particulate organic matter, probably buried during a flood 35 days earlier, appeared largely responsible for these vertical trends. On the other hand, there was little evidence for hydrological exchange between much of the hyporheic zone and the surface stream, implying that processes in the subsurface zone of this stream are effectively isolated during baseflow in mid-summer.
5. Diel cycles of wetting and drying in the moist habitats did not enhance esterase activity relative to the dry or fully saturated habitats. Sediment moisture was not correlated with microbial activity, and mats of senescent algae appeared to inhibit water loss from surface sediments in the moist habitat. In this sand-bed stream, local diel fluctuations in water level appear to have less influence on microbial activity and mineralisation of organic matter in the sediments than occasional floods that bury leaf litter and renew many hyporheic zone functions. Subreach-scale processes seem to be the major driving force of microbial processes and nutrient cycling in this sand-bed river.