Reach-scale geomorphology affects organic matter and consumer δ13C in a forested Piedmont stream


David Walters, US EPA, National Exposure Research Laboratory, 26 W. MLK Blvd., Cincinnati, OH 45268, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. We investigated the spatial (longitudinal position and reach geomorphology) and seasonal (spring and autumn) influences on the variation of δ13C among organic matter sources and consumers in a forested Piedmont river, South Carolina, U.S.A.

2. Six sites were sampled along a continuum and varied in basin area from approximately 30 to 300 km2. Sites fell into two geomorphic categories (i) high-gradient, rock bed (‘rock’) or (ii) low-gradient, sand bed (‘sand’) sites.

3. Variation in δ13C was more strongly related to reach geomorphology than longitudinal position. δ13C of biofilm and consumers was consistently enriched at rock sites. Leaf litter (i.e. coarse particulate organic matter, CPOM) δ13C did not vary with bed type. There was significant δ13C enrichment at rock sites for biofilm, seston, fine benthic organic matter (FBOM), and eight of nine consumer trophic guilds (e.g. grazing invertebrates, insectivorous fishes). δ13C of biofilm and four trophic guilds was also positively correlated with drainage area, but the magnitude of enrichment was less than between bed types.

4. δ13C was generally enriched in spring, but this varied among organic matter types, consumers, and by bed type. CPOM and seston were enriched in spring, FBOM was enriched in autumn, and biofilm showed no trend. Five consumer guilds were enriched in spring, and only one fish guild, generalised carnivores, showed enrichment of muscle tissue in autumn.

5. Consumer δ13C enrichment at rock sites suggests greater reliance on algal carbon than for consumers at sand sites, but we also found δ13C enrichment of biofilm at rock sites. Thus, differences in consumer δ13C between bed types could be related to (i) increased consumption of biofilm at rock compared with sand sites, or (ii) consumption of biofilm at rock sites that is enriched relative to biofilm at sand sites or (iii) both mechanisms.

6. δ13C signatures in local food webs appear to respond to processes operating at multiple spatial scales. Overall downstream enrichment of biofilm and consumers was disrupted by strong local effects related to bed morphology. These results suggest that human alteration of channel habitat will have corresponding effects on stream food webs, as assessed by changes in δ13C.