The effects of water-quality degradation caused by urbanization, agricultural, and industrial activities on leaf litter breakdown and associated communities of invertebrates and microorganisms were examined at 1 reference and 2 downstream polluted sites in the Ave River (northwestern Portugal). Conductivity, concentrations of NH4 -N, NO3−-N, and PO43−-P, and density of culturable microorganisms were high at the polluted sites. Rates of leaf breakdown also were high, and the highest value was found at the most-downstream, nutrient-enriched polluted site. However, the other polluted site had low current velocity and sedimentation, and nutrient enrichment did not lead to rapid leaf breakdown. Shredders were scarce or absent at all sampling sites, and low shredder density probably explained the lack of differences in leaf breakdown rates between fine-mesh and coarse-mesh bags. High fungal and bacterial production on leaves supported high leaf breakdown rates. Bacterial production was greater at both polluted sites than at the reference site, but it did not exceed 11% of the total microbial production. Fungal biomass and production were markedly different between polluted sites, with the highest values corresponding to the fastest leaf breakdown. Our findings indicate that fungi were the major decomposers in this polluted river. We encourage further research on the effects of multiple stressors on the activity of fungal decomposers to help us better understand the mechanisms underlying leaf litter breakdown in streams under stress.
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Vol. 24 • No. 4