Article | Published:

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

Nature Geoscience (2018) | Download Citation


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


  1. IRSTEA, UR RiverLy, Centre de Lyon-Villeurbanne, Villeurbanne, France

    • T. Datry
    • , R. Corti
    • , C. Mendoza-Lera
    •  & S. Cauvy-Fraunié
  2. UMR ‘BOREA’ CNRS 7208/IRD 207/MNHN/UPMC, DMPA, Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France

    • T. Datry
  3. Universite Grenoble Alpes, Laboratoire d’Écologie Alpine (LECA), UMR CNRS-UGA-USMB, Grenoble, France

    • A. Foulquier
  4. Department of Plant Biology and Ecology, Faculty of Science and Technology, University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), Bilbao, Spain

    • D. von Schiller
    •  & A. Elosegi
  5. Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB), Berlin, Germany

    • K. Tockner
    • , M. O. Gessner
    • , M. I. Arce
    • , S. D. Langhans
    • , O. Shumilova
    •  & D. Zak
  6. Institute of Biology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

    • K. Tockner
  7. Université Savoie Mont Blanc, INRA, CARRTEL, Thonon-Les Bains, France

    • J. C. Clément
  8. Department of Ecology, Berlin Institute of Technology (TU Berlin), Berlin, Germany

    • M. O. Gessner
  9. Department of Zoology, University of Granada, Granada, Spain

    • M. Moleón
  10. School of Science and Technology, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

    • R. Stubbington
  11. Department of Geosciences, Federal University of São João del-Rei, São João del-Rei, Brazil

    • B. Gücker
  12. Laboratorio de Fotobiología, INIBIOMA (U.N.COMAHUE - CONICET), Bariloche, Argentina

    • R. Albariño
    •  & V. D. Diaz-Villanueva
  13. Department of Biology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK, USA

    • D. C. Allen
  14. Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Zürich, Switzerland

    • F. Altermatt
  15. Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, The Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Sede Boqer, Israel

    • S. Arnon
  16. Université de Lorraine - UR AFPA, Vandoeuvre-Les-Nancy, France

    • D. Banas
  17. Faculty of Environmental Science, Center of Environmental Science EULA-Chile and CHRIAM Center, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción, Chile

    • A. Banegas-Medina
  18. Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • E. Beller
  19. Edith Cowan University, School of Science, Mine Water and Environment Research Centre (MiWER), Joondalup, Victoria, Australia

    • M. L. Blanchette
  20. Group of Lotic Ecology (ELICE-RESTORES), Instituto de Biología, Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia

    • J. F. Blanco-Libreros
  21. Department of Environment and Science, Queensland Government, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

    • J. J. Blessing
    • , J. C. Marshall
    • , P. M. Negus
    •  & A. L. Steward
  22. Department of Geosciences, Federal University of São João del-Rei, São João del-Rei, Brazil

    • I. G. Boëchat
  23. Department of Biology, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA

    • K. S. Boersma
  24. School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA

    • M. T. Bogan
  25. Grup de Recerca Freshwater Ecology and Management (FEM), Departament de Biologia Evolutiva, Ecologia i Ciències Ambientals, Institut de Recerca de la Biodiversitat (IRBio), Universitat de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

    • N. Bonada
    •  & N. Cid
  26. Murray-Darling Freshwater Research Centre, La Trobe University, Wodonga, Australia, Victoria

    • N. R. Bond
  27. Faculty of Environmental Science, Center of Environmental Science EULA-Chile and CHRIAM Center, Universidad de Concepción, Concepción, Chile

    • K. C. Brintrup Barría
  28. Institute of Earth Sciences, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland, Canobbio, Switzerland

    • A. Bruder
  29. Australian Rivers Institute, Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland, Australia

    • R. M. Burrows
    •  & C. Leigh
  30. Department of Environmental Biology, University of Navarra, School of Sciences, Pamplona, Spain

    • T. Cancellario
  31. Centre for Functional Ecology, Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal

    • C. Canhoto
  32. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • S. M. Carlson
    • , J. L. Hwan
    • , P. Rodríguez-Lozano
    •  & C. Woelfle-Erskine
  33. LIEC, UMR CNRS 7360, Université de Lorraine, Metz, France

    • M. Danger
  34. Centro de Ciências Agrárias e Biológicas, Universidade Estadual Vale do Acaraú, Sobral, Brazil

    • Bianca de Freitas Terra
  35. Water Research Institute - National Research Council, Bari, Italy

    • A. M De Girolamo
    •  & A. Zoppini
  36. Unidad de Limnología y Recursos Acuáticos (ULRA), Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba, Bolivia

    • Evans de La Barra
  37. Department of Ecology and Hydrology, Regional Campus of International Excellence ‘Campus Mare Nostrum’ - University of Murcia, Murcia, Spain

    • R. del Campo
    • , R. Gómez
    • , S. Guareschi
    •  & M. M. Sánchez-Montoya
  38. Institute for Applied Ecology, University of Canberra, Bruce, Territory, Australian Capital, Australia

    • F. Dyer
    •  & R. J. Rolls
  39. Centre International de Recherche en Agronomie pour le Développement, CIRAD, UPR HORTSYS, Montpellier, France

    • E. Faye
  40. School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

    • C. Febria
    •  & A. R. McIntosh
  41. INRA, UAR 1275 DEPT EFPA, Centre de recherche de Nancy, Champenoux, France

    • B. Four
  42. School of Marine Sciences, Ruppin Academic Center, Michmoret, Israel

    • S. Gafny
  43. Department of Biosciences, Mangalore University, Mangalore, India

    • S. D. Ghate
    •  & K. R. Sridhar
  44. Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden

    • L. Gómez-Gener
  45. MARE – Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Department of Life Sciences, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal

    • M. A. S. Graça
  46. Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Frankfurt am Main, Germany

    • F. Hoppeler
    •  & S. U. Pauls
  47. School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, London, UK

    • J. I. Jones
  48. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

    • S. Kubheka
  49. Department of Chemistry, Life Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, University of Parma, Parma, Italy

    • A. Laini
  50. Department of Aquatic Ecology, Eawag the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Duebendorf, Switzerland

    • C. J. Little
    • , E. Martín
    •  & C. T. Robinson
  51. Institute for Ecological Chemistry, Plant Analysis and Stored Product Protection, Julius-Kuehn-Institute, Berlin, Germany

    • S. Lorenz
  52. Department of LimnologyUniversity of Münster, Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity, Münster, Germany

    • E. I. Meyer
  53. Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, Zagreb, Croatia

    • M. Miliša
  54. Department of Freshwater Invertebrates, Albany Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa

    • M. C. Mlambo
  55. Department of Biology, Universidade de Evora, Evora, Portugal

    • M. Morais
  56. Universidad Mayor, Real y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca, Sucre, Bolivia

    • N. Moya
  57. Missouri University of Science and Technology, Rolla, MO, USA

    • D. K. Niyogi
  58. Terra Cypria - The Cyprus Conservation Foundation, Limassol, Cyprus

    • A. Papatheodoulou
  59. Departamento de Ecología y Biología Animal, Universidad de Vigo, Vigo, Spain

    • I. Pardo
  60. Department of Botany and Zoology, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic

    • P. Pařil
    •  & M. Polášek
  61. Department of Biology, University of Montenegro, Podgorica, Montenegro

    • V. Pešić
  62. Department of Biology and Ecology, Faculty of Sciences and Mathematics, University of Niš, Nis, Serbia

    • A. Savić
  63. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, Hamilton, New Zealand

    • R. Storey
  64. Laboratoire d’Écologie et Gestion des Ecosystèmes Naturels (LECGEN), University of Tlemcen, Tlemcen, Algeria

    • A. Taleb
  65. Israel Nature & Parks Authority, Jerusalem, Israel

    • A. Uzan
  66. Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, USA

    • Ross Vander Vorste
  67. Centre for Tropical Water and Aquatic Ecosystem Research (TropWATER) Freshwater Ecology Research Group College of Science and Engineering, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • N. J. Waltham
  68. Center for Applied Geosciences, Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

    • D. Zak
  69. Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Silkeborg, Denmark

    • C. Zarfl


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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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. Datry.

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