The regulation of population processes for most organisms depends upon the strength and rate of feedback between resources and consumers. We conducted an experimental manipulation of leaf packs in stream channels, a patchy and ephemeral resource, which is consumed by a number of detritivorous invertebrates. We reduced the number of available food patches (red alder leaf packs) by half and then measured a variety of community responses, including emigration rate, aggregation on remaining food patches, decomposition rate of food patches, and species-specific differences in these responses. Replacement of removed leaf packs with polyester mimics resulted in no statistical difference in emigration rates or aggregation on remaining resources when compared to those removal channels without replacement. These results indicate that leaf packs are not used primarily for refuge. In the removal channels (including those with leaf pack mimics) emigration rate nearly doubled relative to control channels. Those invertebrates that did not emigrate from removal channels aggregated on remaining leaf packs, which led to more rapid decomposition of leaf packs relative to control channels. The increase in emigration rate only became apparent 2–3 days after the manipulation, presumably because animals colonized the remaining leaf packs and did not emigrate until food patch value per individual had been reduced by higher densities or due to increased discharge. Discharge through the channels increased slightly starting 3 days after the manipulation, resulting in increased emigration rates in all channels. Despite the increase in discharge, the effect of the manipulation remained strong. These results show that stream invertebrates colonizing leaf packs responded in predictable ways to a short-term reduction in food resources which would be adaptive in a system which is heterogeneous in space and time.
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