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Leaf litter decomposition as a bioassessment tool of acidification effects in streams: Evidence from a field study and meta-analysis

Ferreira, Verónica, Guérold, François
Ecological indicators 2017 v.79 pp. 382-390
Acer, Alnus glutinosa, Fagus sylvatica, Liriodendron, Quercus, acid deposition, acidification, aluminum, bags, bedrock, biological assessment, cations, chemical bases, community structure, detritivores, ecosystems, forests, granite, hydrochemistry, leaves, meta-analysis, monitoring, mountains, pH, plant litter, protons, sandstone, streams, France
Atmospheric acid deposition affects many streams worldwide, leading to decreases in pH and in base cations concentrations and increases in aluminum (Al) concentration. These changes in water chemistry induce profound changes in the diversity, structure and activity of biological communities and in ecosystem processes. However, monitoring programs rely only on chemical and structural indicators to assess stream integrity. Nevertheless, the ability of ecosystems to provide services rely on their functional integrity and thus ecosystem processes should be considered in monitoring programs. We assessed the potential for leaf litter decomposition, a fundamental ecosystem process in forest streams, to be used as a bioassessment tool of acidification effects on stream ecosystem functioning. In a field study in the Vosges Mountains (North-eastern France), using three leaf litter species (Alnus glutinosa, Acer pesudoplatanus and Fagus sylvatica) enclosed in fine and coarse mesh bags and incubated in streams flowing over granite or sandstone bedrock along an acidification gradient, we assessed if the response of litter decomposition to acidification depended on litter species, mesh size, parent lithology and acidification level. In a meta-analysis of 17 primary studies on the effect of acidification on leaf litter decomposition, reporting 67 acidified – reference stream comparisons, we assessed the consistency in the response of litter decomposition to acidification cross studies and the robustness of litter decomposition to be used as a bioassessment tool. Both the field study and meta-analysis revealed an overall strong inhibition (>60%) of leaf litter decomposition in acidified streams likely resulting from previously well described altered decomposer community structure and activity. No effect of leaf species was found in the field study, while in the meta-analysis inhibition of leaf litter decomposition in acidified streams was stronger for Fagus than for Acer, Quercus and Liriodendron. However, differences among leaf species in the meta-analysis might have been confounded by other differences among studies. The response of leaf litter decomposition to acidification was stronger in coarse than in fine mesh bags, indicating strong impairment of detritivore community structure and activity. The magnitude of inhibition also depended on parent lithology, but this is likely related to differences in the degree of acidification. Indeed, the magnitude of the inhibition of leaf litter decomposition increases with increases in H+ in Al concentration. Litter decomposition has the potential to be used as a bioassessment tool of acidification effects in streams since it shows consistent response to acidification across regions and is robust to experimental choices.