Relative importance of breakage and decay as processes depleting large wood from streams

Eric C. Merten, Pedro G. Vaz, Jo A. Decker-Fritz, Jacques C. Finlay, Heinz G. Stefan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


Large wood pieces affect virtually every physical, chemical, and biological process in fluvial systems, including hydraulics, transport of materials, algal biomass accrual, nutrient uptake, and trophic interactions. The processes that deplete wood are thus of broad importance to stream ecosystems. We assessed the relative contributions for breakage-induced mobilization (where pieces are more prone to transport as a result of breakage into shorter parts) and gradual biochemical decay to wood depletion rates in a field study on 12 northern Minnesota, USA, streams. Wood pieces > 0.05. m in diameter for a portion > 1. m in length were individually tagged (n= 651), measured, and remeasured a year later. Pieces showed significant reductions in density and branching complexity (i.e., branches and twigs) and 22% of pieces broke (i.e., lost 10% or more of length). Processes related to breakage and decay were examined using Bayesian structural equation modeling and multiple regression. Breakage was more likely for pieces that were thin in diameter, long, deeply submerged, braced, buried, and traveled long distances. Pieces lost more density if they were initially dense, traveled a long distance, were not deeply submerged, lacked bark, were thin in diameter, were steeply pitched, were long, and were not buried. Pieces lost more branching complexity if they were complex with little gap between them and the streambed. Actual mass losses related to breakage and decay were 7.3% and 1.9% (respectively), both less than the 36% observed for total fluvial export. In contrast to the associations of breakage and decay with structural properties of the wood pieces and their position, hydraulic and geomorphic variables (stream power, slope, velocity, width) had little effect.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)40-47
Number of pages8
StatePublished - May 15 2013

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Ryan Carlson, Dustin Wilman, and Nicole Rath for their help in collecting the large wood data; Sue Eggert, Nick Baldauf, and Bob Hell for their advice and assistance with the wood veneers; and Evan Weiher for aid with structural equation modeling. Funding was provided by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Sea Grant . Pedro G. Vaz was funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) ( SFRH/BD/45490/2008 and PEst-OE/AGR/UI0520/2011 ).


  • Breakage
  • Decay
  • Depletion
  • Fluvial transport
  • Large wood
  • Stream

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