1. The aquatic macrophyte Podostemum ceratophyllum has been shown to increase stream productivity, abundance and biomass of benthic invertebrates, and local occurrences of some stream fishes. However, experimental evidence that fishes preferentially associate with Podostemum is lacking, and the value of Podostemum as a predictor of stream fish assemblage composition has not been studied.
2. We conducted two short-term (2 week), small-scale (36 m2) experimental manipulations of Podostemum cover in the Conasauga River (Georgia and Tennessee, U.S.), and found higher abundances of benthic insectivorous fishes in patches with augmented (>80%) compared to reduced (7%) Podostemum cover. In an observational study, we quantified associations among percent cover of Podostemum, fish species richness, land cover, shoal length and base-flow turbidity at 20 randomly selected shoals from a 39-km reach that spanned a gradient of decreasing forest land cover.
3. Richness of all fish species and of lotic fishes peaked in the centre of the study reach, and richness was weakly correlated with predictor variables. Occupancy models for individual species also indicated that longitudinal position was a strong covariate for 13 of 19 species examined, with little support that Podostemum cover influenced occupancy.
4. Local associations may reflect choices by benthic fishes to utilise Podostemum, whereas downstream decline in fish species richness and Podostemum cover may reflect altered capacity of the system to support native species.