Summary 1. Habitats are often connected by fluxes of energy and nutrients across their boundaries. For example, headwater streams are linked to surrounding riparian vegetation through invertebrate and leaf litter inputs, and there is evidence that consumers in downstream habitats are subsidised by resources flowing from headwater systems. However, the strength of these linkages and the manner in which potential headwater subsidies vary along climatic and disturbance gradients are unknown.
2. We quantified the downstream transport of invertebrates, organic matter and inorganic sediment from 60 fishless headwater streams in the Wenatchee River Basin located on the eastern slope of the Cascade Range in Washington, U.S.A. Streams were classified into four groups (each n = 15) based on their position within two ecological subregions (wet and dry) and the extent of past timber harvest and road development (logged and unlogged).
3. Time and ecoregion were significant for all response variables as transport varied across sampling periods, and dry ecoregion streams displayed significantly higher mean values. Logged sites also generally showed higher mean transport, but only inorganic sediment transport was significantly higher in logged sites. Both ecoregion and land-use interacted significantly with time depending on the response variable. Differences among stream categories were driven by relatively low levels of transport in unlogged drainages of the wet ecoregion. Interestingly, unlogged dry ecoregion streams showed comparable transport rates to logged sites in the wet ecoregion. Dominance by deciduous riparian vegetation in all but unlogged streams in the wet ecoregion is a primary hypothesised mechanism determining transport dynamics in our study streams.
4. Understanding the quantity and variation of headwater subsidies across climate and disturbance gradients is needed to appreciate the significance of ecological linkages between headwaters and associated downstream habitats. This will enable the accurate assessment of resource management impacts on stream ecosystems. Predicting the consequences of natural and anthropogenic disturbances on headwater stream transport rates will require knowledge of how both local and regional factors influence these potential subsidies. Our results suggest that resources transported from headwater streams reflect both the meso-scale land-use surrounding these areas and the constraints imposed by the ecoregion in which they are embedded.
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