Increased Light Availability Reduces the Importance of Bacterial Carbon in Headwater Stream Food Webs

Sarah M. Collins, Jed P. Sparks, Steven A. Thomas, Sarah A. Wheatley, Alexander S. Flecker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Many ecosystems rely on subsidies of carbon and nutrients from surrounding environments. In headwater streams that are heavily shaded by riparian forests, allochthonous inputs from terrestrial systems often comprise a major part of the organic matter budget. Bacteria play a key role in organic matter cycling in streams, but there is limited evidence about how much bacterial carbon is actually assimilated by invertebrate and fish consumers, and how bacterial carbon assimilation varies among streams. We conducted stable isotope tracer additions of 13C-acetate, that is assimilated only by bacteria, and 15N-ammonium, that is assimilated by both bacteria and algae, in two small, shaded streams in the Adirondack region of New York State, USA. Our goal was to determine whether there is an important trophic link between bacteria and macroconsumers, and whether the link changes when the light environment is experimentally altered. In 2009, we evaluated bacterial carbon use in both streams with natural canopy cover using 10-day dual-isotope tracer releases. The canopy was then thinned in one stream to increase light availability and primary production and tracer experiments were repeated in 2010. As part of the tracer experiments, we developed a respiration assay to measure the δ13C content of live bacteria, which provided critical information for determining how much of the carbon assimilated by invertebrate consumers is from bacterial sources. Some invertebrate taxa, including scraper mayflies (Heptagenia spp.) that feed largely on biofilms assimilated over 70% of their carbon from bacterial sources, whereas shredder caddisflies (Pycnopsyche spp.) that feed on decomposing leaves assimilated less than 1% of their carbon from bacteria. Increased light availability led to strong declines in the magnitude of bacterial carbon fluxes to different consumers (varying from −17 to −91% decrease across invertebrate taxa), suggesting that bacterial energy assimilation differs not only among consumer taxa but also within the same consumer taxa in streams with different ecological contexts. Our results demonstrate that fluxes of bacterial carbon to higher trophic levels in streams can be substantial, that is over 70% for some taxa, but that invertebrate taxa vary considerably in their reliance on bacterial carbon, and that local variation in carbon sources controls how much bacterial carbon invertebrates use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)396-410
Number of pages15
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • bacteria
  • food web
  • light availability
  • microbial loop
  • stable isotope tracer
  • stream ecology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology


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