Functional responses of stream biofilms to flow cessation, desiccation and rewetting


Xisca Timoner, ICRA, Catalan Institute for Water Research, Carrer Emili Grahit 101, edifici H2O, Parc Científic i Tecnològic de la Universitat de Girona, E- 17003 Girona, Spain. E-mail:


1.  Mediterranean climate regions are characterised by long summer droughts that usually involve flow intermittency in low- to mid-order streams. Flow intermittency implies flow cessation, drying and subsequent rewetting of the streambed, and affects both autotrophic and heterotrophic processes. The balance between these processes, as well as the balance in the use of carbon (C), nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) may change because of the ongoing increase in stream flow intermittency caused by global change in many regions. It is therefore crucial to understand better the consequences of this phenomenon.

2. Our two initial hypotheses were (i) that flow intermittency would impact more on autotrophic than on heterotrophic processes in stream biofilms owing to the higher water dependence of autotrophs, as well as differences in the water storage capacity of the stream biofilm compartments where autotrophic and heterotrophic processes mainly occur (surface cobbles versus hyporheic sediments) and (ii) that the C-N-P use by biofilms would change during the dry period (terrestrial phase) owing to the extreme water stress conditions. These hypotheses were tested by analysing the functional response of the main stream biofilms (epilithic, epipsammic and hyporheic) during flow cessation, desiccation and rewetting in a Mediterranean forested stream. The autotrophic response was characterised through changes in the photon yield, whereas the heterotrophic response was characterised by changes in the extracellular enzyme activities.

3. Streambed desiccation had clear effects on the functioning of stream biofilms. Autotrophic biomass decreased by 80% with streambed desiccation, but recovered rapidly after flow resumption. Heterotrophs were more resistant to water stress, especially in the epipsammic and hyporheic biofilms where bacterial cell density decreased only by 20%.

4. Extracellular enzyme activities remained relatively high, and the balance in the C-N-P use by biofilms changed during the dry period. The C and P breakdown capacities were maintained during dry conditions, especially in the epipsammic and hyporheic biofilms, but the degradation of N compounds sharply decreased. Elemental molar ratios (C:N and C:P) of the different biofilms also changed with streambed desiccation. C:P ratios increased from 80 to 300, while the C:N ratios increased from 10 to 16.

5. Given the contrasting responses of autotrophic and heterotrophic processes in the different biofilms, our results suggest that the current increase in flow intermittency extent is likely to increase the relative importance of heterotrophic processes in stream ecosystems, as well as the relative contribution of the hyporheic biofilm to C-N-P use. Our results further suggest that the longer streams remain dry, the more the biofilm stoichiometry will change.