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A global analysis of terrestrial plant litter dynamics in non-perennial waterways


Perennial rivers and streams make a disproportionate contribution to global carbon (C) cycling. However, the contribution of intermittent rivers and ephemeral streams (IRES), which sometimes cease to flow and can dry completely, is largely ignored although they represent over half the global river network. Substantial amounts of terrestrial plant litter (TPL) accumulate in dry riverbeds and, upon rewetting, this material can undergo rapid microbial processing. We present the results of a global research collaboration that collected and analysed TPL from 212 dry riverbeds across major environmental gradients and climate zones. We assessed litter decomposability by quantifying the litter carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and oxygen (O2) consumption in standardized assays and estimated the potential short-term CO2 emissions during rewetting events. Aridity, cover of riparian vegetation, channel width and dry-phase duration explained most variability in the quantity and decomposability of plant litter in IRES. Our estimates indicate that a single pulse of CO2 emission upon litter rewetting contributes up to 10% of the daily CO2 emission from perennial rivers and stream, particularly in temperate climates. This indicates that the contributions of IRES should be included in global C-cycling assessments.

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This study was made possible thanks to a large collective effort of a global research network entitled the “1000 Intermittent River Project” (1000IRP) that merges individual knowledge, forces and passion through simple, consistent and comparable joint field experiments worldwide.

Author information

T.D., A.F., R.C., D.vS. and K.T. assumed responsibility for the overall project planning and coordination. All authors collected plant litter in their countries and processed and analysed this material. The centralized lab analyses were conducted by T.D., A.F., R.C., C.M.-L. and J.C.C. The data compilation and database management was carried out by R.C. and C.M.-L. The data analyses were performed by T.D., A.F., R.C. and C.M.-L. T.D. led the writing of the manuscript with A.F. and notable contributions by M.O.G., B.G., M.Moleón and R.Stubbington. All the other authors commented on and contributed to revising draft versions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to T. Datry.

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Fig. 1: Main variables predicted to control plant litter accumulation and decomposability in IRES.
Fig. 2: Partial dependence of the probability of the quantity of LL accumulated in dry reaches.
Fig. 3: CO 2 release.