1. Tallgrass prairies and their streams are highly endangered ecosystems, and many remaining streams are threatened by the encroachment of woody riparian vegetation. An increase in riparian vegetation converts the naturally open-canopy prairie streams to closed-canopy systems. The effects of a change in canopy cover on stream metabolism are unknown.
2. Our goal was to determine the effects of canopy cover on prairie stream metabolism during a 4-year period in Kings Creek, KS, U.S.A. Metabolic rates from forested reaches were compared to rates in naturally open-canopy reaches and restoration reaches, the latter having closed canopies in 2006 and 2007 and open canopies in 2008 and 2009. Whole-stream metabolism was estimated using the two-station diurnal method. Chlorophyll a concentrations and mass of filamentous algae were measured after riparian removal to assess potential differences in algal biomass between reaches with open or closed canopies.
3. Metabolic rates were spatially and temporally variable even though the sites were on very similar streams or adjacent to each other within streams. Before riparian vegetation removal, whole-stream community respiration (CR) and net ecosystem production were greater with greater canopy cover. In the vegetation removal reaches, gross primary production was slightly greater after removal.
4. Chlorophyll a concentrations were marginally significantly greater in open (naturally open and removal reaches) than in closed canopy and differed significantly between seasons. Filamentous algal biomass was greater in open than in closed-canopy reaches.
5. Overall, the restoration allowed recovery of some features of open-canopy prairie streams. Woody expansion apparently increases CR and moves prairie stream metabolism towards a more net heterotrophic state. An increase in canopy cover decreases benthic chlorophyll, decreases dominance of filamentous algae and potentially alters resources available to the stream food web. The results of this study provide insights for land managers and conservationists interested in preserving prairie streams in their native open-canopy state.