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Ecological Linkages Between Headwaters and Downstream Ecosystems: Transport of Organic Matter, Invertebrates, and Wood Down Headwater Channels1


  • Mark S. Wipfli,

    1. Associate Professor, Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries, USGS Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, Alaska 99775
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  • John S. Richardson,

    1. Associate Professor, Aquatic and Riparian Ecology, Department of Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, 3041 – 2424 Main Mall, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6T 1Z4
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  • Robert J. Naiman

    1. Professor, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, School of Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Box 355020, Seattle, Washington 98195
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  • 1

    Paper No. J06017 of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA).



Abstract:  Headwater streams make up a large proportion of the total length and watershed area of fluvial networks, and are partially characterized by the large volume of organic matter (large wood, detritus, and dissolved organic matter) and invertebrate inputs from the riparian forest, relative to stream size. Much of those inputs are exported to downstream reaches through time where they potentially subsidize river communities. The relative rates, timing, and conversion processes that carry inputs from small streams to downstream reaches are reasonably well quantified. For example, larger particles are converted to smaller particles, which are more easily exported. Also, dissolved organic matter and surface biofilms are converted to larger particles which can be more easily intercepted by consumers. However, the quality of these materials as it affects biological activity downstream is not well known, nor is the extent to which timing permits biological use of those particles. These ecological unknowns need to be resolved. Further, land uses may disrupt and diminish material transport to downstream reaches by removing sources (e.g., forest harvest), by affecting transport and decomposition processes (e.g., flow regulation, irrigation, changes in biotic communities), and by altering mechanisms of storage within headwaters (e.g., channelization). We present conceptual models of energy and nutrient fluxes that outline small stream processes and pathways important to downstream communities, and we identify informational gaps that, if filled, could significantly advance the understanding of linkages between headwater streams and larger rivers. The models, based on empirical evidence and best professional judgment, suggest that navigable waters are significantly influenced by headwater streams through hydrological and ecological connectivities, and land use can dramatically influence these natural connectivities, impacting downstream riverine ecosystems.