1. If species disproportionately influence ecosystem functioning and also differ in their sensitivities to environmental conditions, the selective removal of species by anthropogenic stressors may lead to strong effects on ecosystem processes. We evaluated whether these circumstances held for several Colorado, U.S.A. streams stressed by Zn.
2. Benthic invertebrates and chemistry were sampled in five second–third order streams for 1 year. Study streams differed in dissolved metal concentrations, but were otherwise similar in chemical and physical characteristics. Secondary production of leaf-shredding insects was estimated using the increment summation and size-frequency methods. Leaf litter breakdown rates were estimated by retrieving litter-bags over a 171 day period. Microbial activity on leaf litter was measured in the laboratory using changes in oxygen concentration over a 48 h incubation period.
3. Dissolved Zn concentrations varied eightfold among two reference and three polluted streams. Total secondary production of shredders was negatively associated with metal contamination. Secondary production in reference streams was dominated by Taenionema pallidum. Results of previous studies and the current investigation demonstrate that this shredder is highly sensitive to metals in Colorado headwater streams. Leaf litter breakdown rates were similar between reference streams and declined significantly in the polluted streams. Microbial respiration at the most contaminated site was significantly lower than at reference sites.
4. Our results supported the hypothesis that some shredder species contribute disproportionately to leaf litter breakdown. Furthermore, the functionally dominant taxon was also the most sensitive to metal contamination. We conclude that leaf litter breakdown in our study streams lacked functional redundancy and was therefore highly sensitive to contaminant-induced alterations in community structure. We argue for the necessity of simultaneously measuring community structure and ecosystem function in anthropogenically stressed ecosystems.