1. Few studies have assessed the role of tadpoles in tropical streams, although they are often abundant and conspicuous components of these systems. Moreover, amphibian populations are declining around the globe, particularly stream-dwelling species in tropical uplands, and the ecological consequences of these losses are not understood.
2. We chose a stream in the central Panamanian highlands, which has an intact fauna of stream-breeding anurans, to examine the ecological consequences of amphibian losses. This site differs dramatically from sites in nearby western Panama and Costa Rica where anuran diversity and abundance have declined greatly in the last two decades.
3. We used an underwater electric field to create tadpole exclosures in runs, so that we could evaluate their influence on sediment dynamics and the abundance and community structure of algae and aquatic insects. Tadpoles reduced total sediments and both organic and inorganic fractions on substrata. Tadpoles also reduced algal abundance on substrata by approximately 50% and decreased algal biovolume. Gut content analyses showed that tadpoles consumed algae and sediments and we could see that algae and sediments were also displaced through bioturbation.
4. Atelopus zeteki, Rana warszewitschii, and Hyla spp. were the dominant larval anurans responsible for the effects observed. Visual surveys indicated that the densities of these taxa ranged from 23 (R. warszewitschii and Hyla spp. combined) to 43 m−2 (A. zeteki) in runs.
5. The abundance of baetid mayflies was lower in tadpole exclosures compared with controls, and this was attributed to tadpoles facilitating mayfly feeding by removing sediments and exposing underlying periphyton.
6. Tadpoles affect the abundance and diversity of basal resources and other primary consumers, and thus influence food web dynamics and energy flow in these tropical streams. Catastrophic decline in stream-breeding anuran populations will influence the structure and function of neotropical stream ecosystems.