Terrestrial detritus supports the food webs in lowland intermittent streams of south-eastern Australia: a stable isotope study


David J. Reid, School of Biological Sciences, Monash University, Wellington Road, Clayton, Vic. 3800, Australia. E-mail: davidjonreid@hotmail.com


  • 1Large amounts of terrestrial detritus enter many low-order forested streams, and this organic material is often the major basal resource in the metazoan food webs of such systems. However, despite their apparently low biomass, algae are the dominant food of organisms in a number of aquatic communities which conventionally would have been presumed to be dependent on allochthonous detritus, particularly those in the tropics and also in lowland intermittent streams in arid Australia.
  • 2The dual stable isotope signatures (δ13C and δ15N) of potential primary food sources were compared with the isotopic signatures of common aquatic animals in lowland intermittent streams in south-eastern Australia, in both spring and summer, to determine whether allochthonous detritus was an important nutritional resource in these systems. The isotopic signatures of the major potential allochthonous plant food sources (Eucalyptus, Phalaris and Juncus) overlapped, but were distinct from algae and the dominant macrophytes growing in the study reaches. The isotopic signatures of biofilm were more spatially and temporally variable than those of the other basal resources.
  • 3Despite allochthonous detritus having relatively high C : N ratios compared to other potential basal resources, results from isosource mixing model calculations demonstrated that this detritus, and the associated biofilm, were the major energy sources assimilated by macroinvertebrate primary consumers in both spring and summer. The importance of these energy sources was also reflected in animals higher in the food web, including predatory macroinvertebrates and fish. These resources were supplemented by autochthonous sources of higher nutritional value (i.e. filamentous algae and macrophytes, which had relatively low C : N ratios) when they became more prolific as the streams dried to disconnected pools in summer.
  • 4The results highlight the importance of allochthonous detritus (particularly from Eucalyptus) as a dependable energy source for benthic macroinvertebrates and fish in lowland intermittent streams of south-eastern Australia. This contrasts with previous stable isotope studies conducted in lowland intermittent streams in arid Australia, which have reported that the fauna are primarily dependent on autochthonous algae.