1. Streams and their adjacent riparian zones are closely linked by reciprocal flows of invertebrate prey. We review characteristics of these prey subsidies and their strong direct and indirect effects on consumers and recipient food webs.
2. Fluxes of terrestrial invertebrates to streams can provide up to half the annual energy budget for drift-feeding fishes such as salmonids, despite the fact that input occurs principally in summer. Inputs appear highest from closed-canopy riparian zones with deciduous vegetation and vary markedly with invertebrate phenology and weather. Two field experiments that manipulated this prey subsidy showed that it affected both foraging and local abundance of stream fishes.
3. Emergence of adult insects from streams can constitute a substantial export of benthic production to riparian consumers such as birds, bats, lizards, and spiders, and contributes 25–100% of the energy or carbon to such species. Emergence typically peaks in early summer in the temperate zone, but also provides a low-level flux from autumn to spring in ice-free streams. This flux varies with in-stream productivity, and declines exponentially with distance from the stream edge. Some predators aggregate near streams and forage on these prey during periods of peak emergence, whereas others rely on the lower subsidy from autumn through spring when terrestrial prey are scarce. Several field experiments that manipulated this subsidy showed that it affected the short-term behaviour, growth, and abundance of terrestrial consumers.
4. Reciprocal prey subsidies also have important indirect effects on both stream and riparian food webs. Theory predicts that allochthonous prey should increase density of subsidised predators, thereby increasing predation on in situ prey and causing a negative indirect effect via apparent competition. However, short-term experiments have produced either positive or negative indirect effects. These contrasting results may be due to characteristics of the subsidies and individual consumers, but could also result from differences in experimental designs.
5. New study approaches are needed to better determine the direct and indirect effects of reciprocal prey subsidies. Experiments coupled with comparative research will be required to measure their effects on individual consumer fitness and population demographics. Future work should investigate whether reciprocal prey fluxes stabilise linked stream–riparian ecosystems, explore how landscape context affects the magnitude and importance of subsidies, and determine how impacts of human disturbance can propagate between streams and riparian zones via these trophic linkages. Study of these reciprocal connections is helping to define a more holistic perspective of catchments, and has the potential to shape new directions for ecology in general.