1. Animals play a major role in nutrient cycling via excretory processes. Although the positive indirect effects of grazers on periphytic algae are well understood, little is known about top-down effects on decomposers of shredders living on leaf litter.
2. Nutrient cycling by shredders in oligotrophic forest streams may be important for the microbial-detritus compartment at very small spatial scales (i.e. within the leaf packs in which shredders feed). We hypothesised that insect excretion may cause local nutrient enrichment, so that microorganism growth on leaves is stimulated.
3. We first tested the effect of increasing concentration of ammonium (+10, +20 and +40 μg NH4+ L−1) on fungal and bacterial biomass on leaf litter in a laboratory experiment. Then we performed two experiments to test the effect of the presence and feeding activity of shredder larvae. We used two species belonging to the trichopteran family Sericostomatidae: the Palaearctic Sericostoma vittatum and the Neotropical Myothrichia murina, to test the effect of these shredders on fungal and bacterial biomass and decomposition on leaves of Quercus robur and Nothofagus pumilio, respectively. All experiments were run in water with low ammonium concentrations (2.4 ± 0.34 to 14.47 ± 0.95 μg NH4+ L−1).
4. After 5 days of incubation, NH4 concentrations were reduced to near-ambient streamwater concentrations in all treatments with leaves. Fungal biomass was positively affected by increased ammonium concentration. On the other hand, bacteria abundance was similar in all treatments, both in terms of abundance (bacteria cells mg−1 leaf DW) and biomass. However, there was a tendency towards larger mean cell size in treatments with 20 μg NH4 L−1.
5. In the experiment with S. vittatum, fungal biomass in the treatment with insects was more than twice that in the control after 15 days. Bacteria were not detected in treatments with insects, where hyphae were abundant, but they were abundant in treatments without larvae. In the decomposition experiment run with M. murina, leaf-mass loss was significantly higher in treatments with larvae than in controls.
6. Our hypothesis of a positive effect of shredders on fungal biomass and decomposition was demonstrated. Insect excretion caused ammonium concentration to increase in the microcosms, contributing to microbial N uptake in leaf substrata, which resulted in structural and functional changes in community attributes. The positive effect of detritivores on microbes has been mostly neglected in stream nutrient-cycling models; our findings suggest that this phenomenon may be of greater importance than expected in stream nutrient budgets.