1. Autochthonous sources of organic matter appear to make a minor contribution to food webs in temperate forest streams, but their roles in supporting consumer biomass in tropical lotic environments have received little attention. We investigated the importance of autochthonous and allochthonous food sources to Brotia hainanensis (Pachychilidae), a detritivorous and algivorous snail common in Hong Kong hillstreams, using experimental dietary manipulations and assimilation-based analyses, including stoichiometry, carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stable isotopes and fatty acid (FA) profiles.
2. Juvenile B. hainanensis collected in Pak Ngau Shek Stream were cultured under controlled laboratory conditions and fed for 2 months with either conditioned Liquidambar formosana (Hamamelidaceae) leaf litter or periphyton. Samples of B. hainanensis were also collected from the stream at the end of the experiment for comparison with snails reared in the laboratory.
3. Periphyton and leaf litter exhibited marked differences in C/N ratios, δ13C and δ15N values and FA profiles. Stable isotope analysis and FA profiling of laboratory-reared and field-collected B. hainanensis both confirmed that snails relied primarily on autochthonous foods, especially periphytic diatoms and cyanobacteria. Stoichiometry results indicated that periphyton was a more nutritious food (with lower C/N ratio) than leaf litter.
4. This is the first study demonstrating that the combined use of stable isotopes and FA profiles is an effective diagnostic tool to trace the basal food sources of consumers in natural stream habitats. Our findings further support the hypothesis that primary production in tropical streams is generally more important to aquatic consumers than inputs of terrestrial detritus.