1. The loss of input of leaf litter through clearing of riparian vegetation may result in significant changes to aquatic ecosystems. River red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) surrounding floodplain wetlands in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia, contribute large quantities of leaf litter, but the quality of this resource may change depending on the timing of inundation.
2. We used experimental mesocosms to test the hypotheses that zooplankton would have a greater abundance with an input of leaf litter and that fewer zooplankton would emerge from egg banks in cleared than forested wetlands. The experiment was carried out in summer/autumn and in spring to test a third hypothesis that zooplankton would respond to changes in the timing of wetland inundation as a result of river regulation.
3. In summer/autumn, leaf litter reduced zooplankton abundance by 89% at the beginning of the experiment through its influence on water quality. Only a few taxa (Polyarthra spp., Colurella spp. and the cladoceran Family Moinidae) responded positively to leaf litter when water quality improved later in the experiment, indicating a switch in the role of leaf litter from a non-trophic to a trophic pathway.
4. In spring, microcrustaceans emerged in smaller numbers from sediment sourced from cleared compared to forested wetlands, reflecting different communities in these two wetland types and/or disturbances to the sediment that interfere with emergence.
5. Although leaf litter appears not to be an important resource for zooplankton in floodplain wetlands, riparian clearing may have lasting effects on future emerging zooplankton communities. Additionally, river regulation may have considerable impacts on the influence of leaf litter on zooplankton, which has implications for the management of floodplain river systems.