Leaf breakdown in a natural open tropical stream
Leaf breakdown is a primary process of nutrient cycling and energy flow, contributing to the functioning of aquatic ecosystems. In the present study, leaves of Baccharis platypoda and Coccoloba cereifera were incubated in a high-altitude stream in a rupestrian field. Two hypotheses were tested: i) intrinsic factors (quality of detritus) are more important than extrinsic factors (decomposer communities) in decomposition; and ii) low detritus quality hinders microbial colonization, thereby altering the composition and structure of the associated invertebrate community and slowing leaf breakdown. The breakdown coefficients of B. platypoda and C. cereifera leaves were low (k = -0.0019 day-1 and k = -0.0008 day-1, respectively) and the proportions of structural compounds were high, delaying the remobilization of energy and nutrients into the aquatic ecosystem. Fungal biomass was higher at the end of the experiment, suggesting favorable conditions for colonization. The densities of invertebrates associated with the detritus increased coincident with the peak concentration of ergosterol, with the trophic groups collector-gatherer and scraper having the highest densities. The distribution of these groups was likely related to the growth of biofilm on the surface of the litters. As described for tropical streams, shredders had the lowest densities of any invertebrate group, suggesting a reduced participation of these invertebrates in leaf processing. The results suggest that slow decomposing species are important to both invertebrates and microorganisms as substrates and sources of particulate organic matter. The low palatability and nutritional quality of the detritus in the present study, associated with low dissolved nutrient concentrations in water, delayed the leaf conditioning process by microorganisms. Decomposition rates and invertebrate participation were reduced as a result, leading to major physical decomposition. Headwater tropical streams have chemically diverse detrital resources, and the intrinsic factors of litter may play key roles in the decomposition process.
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