1. A substantial portion of particulate organic matter (POM) is stored in the sediment of rivers and streams. Leaf litter breakdown as an ecosystem process mediated by microorganisms and invertebrates is well documented in surface waters. In contrast, this process and especially the implication for invertebrates in subsurface environments remain poorly studied.
2. In the hyporheic zone, sediment grain size distribution exerts a strong influence on hydrodynamics and habitability for invertebrates. We expected that the influence of shredders on organic matter breakdown in river sediments would be influenced strongly by the physical structure of the interstitial habitat.
3. To test this hypothesis, the influence of gammarids (shredders commonly encountered in the hyporheos) on degradation of buried leaf litter was measured in experimental systems (slow filtration columns). We manipulated the structure of the sedimentary habitat by addition of sand to a gravel-based sediment column to reproduce three conditions of accessible pore volume. Ten gammarids were introduced in columns together with litter bags containing alder leaves at a depth of 8 cm in sediment. Leaves were collected after 28 days to determine leaf mass loss and associated microbial activity (fungal biomass, bacterial abundance and glucosidase, xylosidase and aminopeptidase activities).
4. As predicted, the consumption of buried leaf litter by shredders was strongly influenced by the sediment structure. Effective porosity of 35% and 25% allowed the access to buried leaf litter for gammarids, whereas a lower porosity (12%) did not. As a consequence, leaf litter breakdown rates in columns with 35% and 25% effective porosity were twice as high as in the 12% condition. Microbial activity was poorly stimulated by gammarids, suggesting a low microbial contribution to leaf mass loss and a direct effect of gammarids through feeding activity.
5. Our results show that breakdown of POM in subsurface waters depends on the accessibility of food patches to shredders.