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The Influence of Leaf Type on Carbon and Nitrogen Assimilation by Aquatic Invertebrate Communities: A New Perspective on Trophic Efficiency

Abstract

Despite abounding evidence that leaf litter traits can predict decomposition rate, the way these traits influence trophic efficiency and element transfer to higher trophic levels is not resolved. Here, we used litter labeled with 13C and 15N stable isotopes to trace fluxes of litter C and N from four leaf types to freshwater invertebrate communities. We measured absolute (mg C or N) and relative assimilation (percentage of litter C or N incorporated into invertebrate biomass relative to C and N lost during decomposition). Four patterns emerged: (1) Invertebrate communities assimilated more C and N from slowly decomposing litter than communities feeding on rapidly decomposing litter; (2) absolute assimilation of both C and N in leaf packs was positively correlated with the relative biomass of invertebrate taxa in leaf packs; (3) Chironomidae larvae, which colonize packs in the early decomposition stages, assimilated the most C and N by the end of the 35-day experiment; and (4) most taxa, spanning five functional feeding groups (collector–gatherers, shredders, collector–filterers, scrapers, and predators), showed similar patterns in both absolute and relative assimilation across leaf types. These results challenge traditional views of litter quality by demonstrating that trophic efficiency is negatively associated with decomposition rate across these four leaf types.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Phil Patterson from the NAU Research Greenhouse for assisting with growing and labeling plants. We thank Greg Florian for helping to build growth chambers. We are appreciative of Tom Kaminski, Jesse Maestas, David Green, Raemy Winton, David Rakestraw, Jordan Pletzer, Shannon Hagerty, Bri Finley, Janice Talley, Adriana Nimer, and Rosie Alling for help in the field and laboratory. We appreciate useful discussions with Mike Rotter, Sean Mahoney, and Danelle Larson. We thank members of the Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, at Northern Arizona University, for their valuable insights and feedback throughout the design of the field experiment and development of the manuscript. We appreciate the feedback from the editor and two anonymous reviewers, which substantially improved the manuscript. Funding was provided through NSF Grants DEB-1120343 and DEB-1655357.

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Correspondence to Adam C. Siders.

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ACS, ZGC, BAH, PD, GWK, and JCM designed the study. ACS and ZGC grew and labeled the leaves and conducted the field experiment. ACS wrote the first draft of the manuscript and ZGC, BAH, GWK, and JCM made substantial contributions to revising the manuscript.

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Siders, A.C., Compson, Z.G., Hungate, B.A. et al. The Influence of Leaf Type on Carbon and Nitrogen Assimilation by Aquatic Invertebrate Communities: A New Perspective on Trophic Efficiency. Ecosystems 24, 788–805 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-020-00550-3

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Keywords

  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen
  • Stable isotopes
  • Leaf litter
  • Decomposition
  • Invertebrates
  • Assimilation
  • Trophic efficiency