1. River food webs rely on two major food sources: autochthonous primary production within the river and allochthonous organic matter transferred to the river. We characterised the consumer communities and assessed the food sources of dominant consumers along a subtropical mountainous river (the Lanyang River of north-eastern Taiwan) at the catchment scale from the headwater to the estuary using natural abundances of stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes.
2. The downstream transport of fine particulate organic matter (FPOM) was two orders of magnitude greater than that of coarse particulate organic matter (CPOM). Transport of both materials increased from the headwater and reached a maximum in the midstream reach. CPOM composition exhibited a gradual shift from leaves and branches in the headwater, an area characterised by high canopy cover, to algae in the midstream reaches and marsh plants in the downstream reaches.
3. Consumer communities can be classified into two regional categories: the upland category in the headwater and upstream and midstream reaches and the lowland category comprised of samples from the downstream reach and estuary. The upland category revealed a clear and gradual seasonal shift in community composition, but a seasonal shift was not apparent for the lowland category. Nutrient concentrations and water temperature were the main factors explaining longitudinal and seasonal variations.
4. The use of sources of organic matter by dominant consumers along the Lanyang River was primarily determined by their availability. Riparian C3 plants were the major food sources in the headwater, upstream reach and estuary, but the contribution of periphyton increased in the upper midstream reach where the river flows through an agricultural area. In the lower midstream and downstream reaches, the contribution of riparian C4 plants became dominant.
5. The trophic transfer of organic materials in the Lanyang River may be influenced by the fast current velocity and by sewage nutrient loading in the river, both of which have important implications for predicting how the functioning of subtropical river food webs will respond to human-related changes in land use.