1. Scant information is available on leaf breakdown in streams of arid and semiarid regions, including the Mediterranean, where environmental heterogeneity can be high and the relationship between stream characteristics and leaf breakdown is poorly known. We tested the hypotheses that differences in leaf breakdown metrics would be substantially higher between mountain and lowland Mediterranean streams than among streams within each subregion and that variability among streams would be substantially higher in the lowlands, because permanent reaches in the semiarid lowland streams are rare and isolated.
2. We compared leaf breakdown and associated dynamics of nutrients, fungi and invertebrates in low-order Mediterranean streams draining sub-humid forests in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and nearby semiarid lowlands of south-eastern Spain. Streams differed between the two subregions mainly in water ion content, temperature and riparian tree cover. We detected higher environmental heterogeneity among streams within the lowlands compared to the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In the lowlands, breakdown coefficients (k) of alder leaves spanned almost the entire range reported for this species from temperate streams, overlapping with less variable breakdown coefficients in the Sierra Nevada.
3. The high variability of k values among the lowland sites appeared to be caused primarily by variability in the composition and abundance of a few leaf-consuming invertebrate taxa, particularly the snail Melanopsis praemorsa. Fungal and nutrient dynamics were less variable among sites within each subregion.
4. These results indicate that the critical condition for stream functional assessment of well-constrained breakdown rates, or related metrics, could be met at reference sites within homogenous bio-geo-climatic regions such as the Sierra Nevada. By contrast, in heterogeneous areas such as the semiarid lowland streams, natural variability of breakdown rates can greatly exceed the magnitude of effects expected in response to anthropogenic disturbances.