Influence of riparian thinning on trophic pathways supporting stream food webs in forested watersheds

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Resource managers seek to thin second-growth riparian forests to address multiple stream and riparian management objectives, including enhancing aquatic productivity via light-mediated trophic pathways in watersheds of the Pacific Northwest (USA). However, such increases in aquatic productivity depend on complex food web dynamics that link riparian forests and streams. To evaluate how riparian forest thinning influences stream food webs, we conducted a replicated, manipulative field experiment in three northern California watersheds composed of second-growth redwood forests and tracked responses across multiple trophic levels (periphyton, macroinvertebrates, amphibians, and fish) 1 year pre- and post-treatment. Riparian thinning treatments increased light to the stream channel, yet we observed mixed responses by stream food webs. Thinning did not change stream periphyton biomass on natural substrates but increased periphyton accrual on ceramic tiles. Periphyton accrual appeared to be partially muted by top-down effects from invertebrate scrapers, which were more abundant in thinned reaches. Prey in the diets of top predators—coastal giant salamanders (Dicamptodon tenebrosus) and coastal cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii clarkii)—did not change in biomass, composition, or structure in response to thinning and instead varied more seasonally and between predators. Stable isotope analysis indicated that shifts in carbon (δ13C) signatures of stream periphyton associated with thinning were reflected to varying extents by primary consumers but did not propagate up to top predators. Top predator biomass responses varied between species, where salamander biomass remained unchanged, but cutthroat trout biomass increased slightly in thinned reaches. However, trout biomass responses were not supported by diets or isotopes and correlated weakly with changes in light associated with thinning, suggesting little evidence that responses could be attributed directly to changes in autotrophic pathways. Furthermore, we found no evidence that local trophic responses to thinning propagated into downstream reaches. Taken together, we observed that trophic pathways supporting stream food webs remained largely intact immediately after riparian thinning treatments. Collectively, these results suggest that riparian thinning does not necessarily enhance aquatic productivity in forested streams, indicating that contextual factors driving realized ecological responses should be accounted for when considering thinning as a restoration strategy for stream–riparian ecosystems.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Influence of riparian thinning on trophic pathways supporting stream food webs in forested watersheds
Series title Ecosphere
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4219
Volume 13
Issue 9
Year Published 2022
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description e4219, 24 p.
Country United States
State California
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