Macroinvertebrate shredders have been widely recognized as an important functional feeding group that contributes to leaf decomposition in temperate streams, but little is known about their role in upland Neotropical streams. In this study, we investigated the effect of macroinvertebrate exclusion on leaf breakdown rates in two upland streams (Marianela and Peña Bonita with 1 911 and 2 560 m elevation, respectively) in Colombia. We hypothesized that leaf litter breakdown is mediated mainly by macroinvertebrate shredders in Colombian upland streams. The study was carried out between January and April of 2009, including the dry season and the beginning of the wet season. We measured leaf mass loss using coarse- (15 mm; accessible to macroinvertebrates) and fine- (200 µm; macroinvertebrates excluded) mesh litter bags that were anchored with wood stakes to the bottom of each stream and recovered after 7, 14, 21, 28, and 56 days. We selected leaves from two dominant plant species and used three leaf treatments: two single species (Palicourea cuatrecasasii and Critoniopsis ursicola) and mixed-species (P. cuatrecasasii and C. ursicola). We compared leaf breakdown rates between the Peña Bonita and Marianela stream, mesh-sizes, and leaf treatments. Macroinvertebrates that colonized the litter bags were measured for density and biomass and categorized in functional feeding groups. In general, there were no significant differences in breakdown rates between the streams and the mesh-sizes. In contrast, leaf breakdown rates had significant differences between all leaf species, where C. ursicola had higher breakdown rates than mixed-species, and P. cuatrecasasii. Macroinvertebrate exclusion did not affect leaf breakdown rates and their assemblages were composed by high densities of collectors (mainly Chironomidae) and few shredders with a large body size. The similar macroinvertebrate colonization between leaf species, the relatively slow breakdown rates, and the shredder scarcity, suggest that leaves were a refractory substrate. Further studies should include leaf species with different nutritional qualities and larger spatial-temporal scales to test the hypothesis of shredder presence and its role on leaf decomposition in upland Colombian streams.
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