Landscape Ecology

, Volume 34, Issue 10, pp 2353–2369 | Cite as

Hierarchical variation in cellulose decomposition in least-disturbed reference streams: a multi-season study using the cotton strip assay

  • Jenna R. Webb
  • Nolan J. T. Pearce
  • Kristin J. Painter
  • Adam G. YatesEmail author
Research Article



Decomposition of organic matter dictates productivity of headwater streams in forested biomes. However, the hierarchical structure of stream ecosystems entails that research aimed at understanding patterns and drivers of decomposition incorporate multiple spatio-temporal scales.


We assessed spatio-temporal patterns of cellulose decomposition in least-disturbed streams and determined the relative distribution of variation associated with region, stream and habitat scales. We also established the environmental drivers associated with heterogeneity in cellulose decomposition.


We applied a hierarchical design to assess spatio-temporal patterns of cellulose decomposition in least-disturbed streams of Ontario, Canada. Cotton strips were deployed in one pool and one riffle in each of 19 streams across three regions with distinct climates and physiography. Strips were deployed in spring, summer and autumn and assessed for rate of tensile strength loss.


Rates of tensile loss differed among regions regardless of season. Habitat differences were observed in two of three regions during the spring and summer. Season only explained a significant amount of variance when tensile loss rates were not corrected for stream temperatures. Region and stream scales were associated with twice the variance in tensile loss than habitat. Spatial variation in tensile loss was negatively associated with latitude, forest cover, nutrients and conductivity.


Our findings demonstrate the importance of the regional landscape template in explaining spatio-temporal patterns of cellulose decomposition in streams. Moreover, our study suggests application of cellulose decomposition as a biomonitoring tool requires consideration of regional landscapes, habitat and season when developing sampling protocols and bioassessment models.


River hierarchy Decomposition Landscape factors Habitat Seasonality Forest streams 



Thank you to R.C. Bailey and S.D. Tiegs for thoughtful advice on study design, methods and statistical analyses. Two anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on a draft of this paper. Research funding was provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant to AGY, NSERC Post-graduate Scholarships to NJTP and KJP, as well as a NSERC Collaborative Research and Training Experience Great Lakes Scholarship to JRW.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of GeographyThe University of Western Ontario and Canadian Rivers InstituteLondonCanada

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