Spatial scales of carbon flow in a river food web

Jacques C. Finlay, Sapna Khandwala, Mary E. Power

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

181 Scopus citations


Spatial extents of food webs that support stream and river consumers are largely unknown, but such information is essential for basic understanding and management of lotic ecosystems. We used predictable variation in algal δ13C with water velocity, and measurements of consumer δ13C and δ15N to examine carbon flow and trophic structure in food webs of the South Fork Eel River in Northern California. Analyses of δ13C showed that the most abundant macroinvertebrate groups (collector-gatherers and scrapers) relied on algae from local sources within their riffle or shallow pool habitats. In contrast, filter-feeding invertebrates in riffles relied in part on algal production derived from upstream shallow pools. Riffle invertebrate predators also relied in part on consumers of pool-derived algal carbon. One abundant taxon drifting from shallow pools and riffles (baetid mayflies) relied on algal production derived from the habitats from which they dispersed. The trophic linkage from pool algae to riffle invertebrate predators was thus mediated through either predation on pool herbivores dispersing into riffles, or on filter feeders. Algal production in shallow pool habitats dominated the resource base of vertebrate predators in all habitats at the end of the summer. We could not distinguish between the trophic roles of riffle algae and terrestrial detritus, but both carbon sources appeared to play minor roles for vertebrate consumers. In shallow pools, small vertebrates, including three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), roach (Hesperoleucas symmetricus), and rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa), relied on invertebrate prey derived from local pool habitats. During the most productive summer period, growth of all size classes of steelhead and resident rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) in all habitats (shallow pools, riffles, and deep unproductive pools) was largely derived from algal production in shallow pools. Preliminary data suggest that the strong role of shallow pool algae in riffle steelhead growth during summer periods was due to drift of pool invertebrates to riffles, rather than movement of riffle trout. Data for δ15N showed that resident rainbow trout (25-33 cm standard length) in deep pools preyed upon small size classes of juvenile steelhead that were most often found in riffles or shallow pools. While many invertebrate consumers relied primarily on algal production derived from local habitats, our study shows that growth of top predators in the river is strongly linked to food webs in adjacent habitats. These results suggest a key role for emigration of aquatic prey in determining carbon flow to top predators.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1845-1859
Number of pages15
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2002


  • Cannibalism
  • Carbon and nitrogen stable-isotope ratios
  • Carbon flow
  • Oncorhynchus mykiss
  • River food webs
  • Scraper and collector-gatherer (SCG) taxa
  • Spatial scale
  • Steelhead trout
  • Terrestrial detritus
  • Trophic structure


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