Variation in ecosystem function in appalachian streams along an acidity gradient
Simon, K. S.
Simon, M. A.
Benfield, E. F.
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Acidification is a widespread phenomenon that damages aquatic systems, and it has been the focus of intensive management efforts. While most management has focused on community structure as an endpoint, ecosystem function is also sensitive to Acidification and important in stream health. We examined how a key ecosystem function in streams, leaf breakdown, varied along a gradient of pH resulting from acid deposition, natural conditions, and liming. We also measured how invertebrate and microbial assemblage structure and microbial function were related to altered leaf breakdown rates. Leaf breakdown rates declined more than threefold along a gradient of stream acidity from pH 6.8 to 4.9. The diversity of leaf-shredding invertebrates, bacteria, and fungi showed little response to variation in pH. The abundance of one acid-sensitive caddisfly, Lepidostoma, declined with Acidification, and Lepidostoma abundance explained 37% of the variation in leaf breakdown rates among sites. Microbial respiration was suppressed along the acidity gradient, although the pattern was weaker than that for breakdown rate. In short-term laboratory incubations, microbes at acidic and circumneutral sites demonstrated adaptation to ambient pH. The activity of microbial extracellular enzymes was strongly influenced by pH. In particular, the pattern of activity of phosphatase indicated increasing P limitation of microbes with increasing Acidification. Our results show that leaf breakdown is a sensitive tool for examining the response of stream function to Acidification and also for de. ning the mechanisms that drive functional response. Future management efforts should focus on key taxa that are particularly sensitive and effective at shredding leaves and also the role of shifting acidity in mediating the availability of phosphorus to microbial films that are important for stream function.