Currently available tools for studying plant litter decomposition and invertebrate consumption in aquatic ecosystems have at least 2 major limitations: 1) the difficulty of manipulating litter chemical composition to provide mechanistic insights into attributes of litter quality controlling decomposition rate, and 2) lack of a standardized litter that hampers comparisons of results among studies. These limitations point to a need for a standard litter surrogate with adjustable chemical composition. We propose using a decomposition and consumption tablet (DECOTAB) consisting of cellulose powder embedded in an agar matrix to evaluate decomposition and consumption rates in aquatic environments. We describe the preparation of DECOTABs and demonstrate some applications in laboratory microcosms and outdoor mesocosms. A leaf shredder, the isopod Asellus aquaticus, and a collector-gatherer, the nonbiting midge larva Chironomus riparius, readily consumed DECOTABs, leading to massive mass loss of the tablets within 21 d (∼90%). The isopod also consumed DECOTABs amended with extracts of riparian plants and soil to create a chemically complex source of organic matter. Our results highlight the potential utility of DECOTABs to assess invertebrate contributions to organic matter decomposition in aquatic systems. In the absence of invertebrates, exposure of basic and complex DECOTABs to microorganisms resulted in significant mass loss within 21 d (10–25%), and addition of an antibiotic and fungicide suppressed microbial decomposition, suggesting that the tablets are useful for studying microbial processes. Complex tablets decomposed faster than the basic tablets, a result illustrating the importance of chemical composition of organic material for microbial decomposers. DECOTABs are a novel, versatile tool for addressing long-standing questions in aquatic ecology and environmental assessment.
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