The influence of elevated arsenic concnetrations on stream biota and leaf breakdown in a headwater stream

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Virginia Tech

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, which is toxic to aquatic biota especially in disturbed areas where it may be found at high concentrations. A headwater stream adjacent to an 85 year-old abandoned arsenic mine was investigated to determine the influence of arsenic on stream biota and processes using an upstream (reference) and downstream (mine-influenced) comparative approach. Arsenic concentration was measured monthly at 10 sites along the stream length. Benthic macroinvertebrate surveys were conducted in both reaches five times throughout the course of a year. Leaf breakdown assays were conducted in reference and mine-influenced reaches. Leaf biofilm respiration was recorded during leaf breakdown assays and also with experimental arsenic additions to reference reach leaf biofilms. At the field site, arsenic concentrations varied from below detection limit (<2.5µg/L) to more than 12 mg/L. Macroinvertebrate density was greatly reduced down-gradient of the mine with 154 individuals/m2, while upstream there were 7869 individuals/m2. Leaf biofilm respiration rates were comparable to others found in the literature and not significantly different between reference and mine-influenced reaches. Further, experimental additions of arsenic did not alter biofilm respiration under laboratory conditions. However, shredder abundance on leaf packs was eight to twenty times greater upstream than the mine-influenced reach. Leaf breakdown rate varied two to three fold among sites distributed above and below the mine and were significantly lower in reaches of elevated arsenic concentration. Together, these data suggest that the mining operations on this headwater stream have altered organic matter processing primarily by decreasing invertebrate densities and limiting shredder abundance.

leaf breakdown, arsenic, ecosystem function, macroinvertebrates