We studied the decomposition process and macroinvertebrate colonisation of leaf packs to determine to what extent leaf consumption and invertebrate abundance depend on the pollution level, season, leaf type and patch size. We exposed 400 leaf packs made of two leaf types, alder and chestnut, at two sites of the Erro River (NW Italy) with different environmental alteration levels. Leaf packs were set out as three patch sizes (alone, or in groups of 6 or 12). A first experiment was carried out in winter and a second in summer. Leaf packs were retrieved after 15, 30, 45 and 60 days of submersion to determine the leaf mass loss and to quantify the associated macroinvertebrates. Natural riverbed invertebrates were collected in the same areas. Patch size, season, leaf type and pollution level significantly affected mass loss. The breakdown process was faster for alder leaves, during summer, at the unpolluted site, and in smaller patches. Leaf type and patch size did not affect macroinvertebrate density and richness, but the highest taxon richness was found in winter and at the unpolluted site. There were more shredders and predators than in the natural riverbed. Our study supports two recent ideas regarding leaf processing in streams: that patch size influences the leaf breakdown rate and that the breakdown rate can be used to evaluate water quality and environmental health.
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