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Effects of retention site on breakdown of organic matter in a mountain stream


Correspondence: Lorea Flores, Faculty of Science and Technology, The University of the Basque Country. PO Box 644, 48080 Bilbao, Spain.



  1. Organic matter inputs to streams can be retained in contrasting sites, from small leaf packs on top of cobbles to thick organic deposits trapped by wood jams. Differences in environmental conditions and in stability among sites can affect the biological communities, the quality of organic matter and its use by consumers.
  2. We measured the accumulation and composition of coarse organic matter and the breakdown of alder leaves on the surface of the streambed, inside gravel bars and in thick litter deposits trapped by log jams. We also monitored fungal sporulation rates and macroinvertebrate diversity and density in these retention sites.
  3. The amount of organic matter in these locations differed significantly among sites and ranged from 118 g m−2 in gravel to 11 562 g m−2 in jams. The biomass of shredders also differed significantly among retention sites, being highest in jams (1440 mg m−2) and lowest in gravel (86 mg m−2).
  4. Breakdown of alder leaves in fine-mesh bags did not differ among retention sites. In coarse-mesh bags, leaf breakdown rate was significantly lower in gravel bars than in surface sites or jams. Despite large differences in amount and quality of organic matter between surface sites and jams, alder leaves broke down at the same rate.
  5. Density of invertebrates in bags and fungal sporulation rates tended to be highest in surface sites and lowest in gravel bars. The contribution of microbes to breakdown was 67% in gravel, 52% in surface and only 28% in jams. Overall, the differences among sites in leaf breakdown were correlated with invertebrate density.
  6. Our results showed large differences in the amount and quality of organic matter accumulated, in biological communities and in the use of organic matter among retention sites of a single stream reach. This spatial variability should be taken into account in studies of ecosystem functioning related to organic matter.