Carbon and nitrogen transfer from a desert stream to riparian predators


Adult aquatic insects emerging from streams may be a significant source of energy for terrestrial predators inhabiting riparian zones. In this study, we use natural abundance δ13C and δ15N values and an isotopic 15N tracer addition to quantify the flow of carbon and nitrogen from aquatic to terrestrial food webs via emerging aquatic insects. We continuously dripped labeled 15N-NH4 for 6 weeks into Sycamore Creek, a Sonoran desert stream in the Tonto National Forest (central Arizona) and traced the flow of tracer 15N from the stream into spiders living in the riparian zone. After correcting for natural abundance δ15N, we used isotopic mixing models to calculate the proportion of 15N from emerging aquatic insects incorporated into spider biomass. Natural abundance δ13C values indicate that orb-web weaving spiders inhabiting riparian vegetation along the stream channel obtain almost 100% of their carbon from instream sources, whereas ground-dwelling hunting spiders obtain on average 68% of their carbon from instream sources. During the 6-week period of the 15N tracer addition, orb-web weaving spiders obtained on average 39% of their nitrogen from emerging aquatic insects, whereas spider species hunting on the ground obtained on average 25% of their nitrogen from emerging aquatic insects. To determine if stream subsidies might be influencing the spatial distribution of terrestrial predators, we measured the biomass, abundance and diversity of spiders along a gradient from the active stream channel to a distance of 50 m into the upland using pitfall traps and timed sweep net samples. Spider abundance, biomass and richness were highest within the active stream channel but decreased more than three-fold 25 m from the wetted stream margin. Changes in structural complexity of vegetation, ground cover or terrestrial prey abundance could not account for patterns in spider distributions, however nutrient and energy subsidies from the stream could explain elevated spider numbers and richness within the active stream channel and riparian zone of Sycamore Creek.

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The authors thank Bruce Peterson and Wil Wolheim for helping us think through the isotopic mixing model calculations. Stephanie Eden and Norm Leonard assisted in the laboratory. Kris Tholke and Tom Maddox performed mass spectrometry at the Ecosystems Center (MBL) and University of Georgia Analytical Chemistry Laboratories. John Sabo, Jim Elser and one anonymous reviewer provided valuable comments on the manuscript that greatly improved its content. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation to J.R. Webster, P.J. Mulholland, J.L. Meyer and B.J. Peterson (DEB-9628860) and the Coweeta LTER program (DEB- 9632854).

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Correspondence to D. M. Sanzone.

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Sanzone, D.M., Meyer, J.L., Marti, E. et al. Carbon and nitrogen transfer from a desert stream to riparian predators. Oecologia 134, 238–250 (2003) doi:10.1007/s00442-002-1113-3

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  • Adult aquatic insects
  • Aquatic subsidies
  • Araneae
  • δ13C
  • δ15N
  • Spiders