Disentangling the effects of disturbance and habitat size on stream community structure (2011)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury. School of Biological Sciences
AuthorsJellyman, Phillip Graemeshow all
Our ability to predict community responses to environmental stress remains limited. To address this issue, I investigated how species abundance, community composition and food-web structure varied across abiotic gradients (principally disturbance and habitat size) in New Zealand streams. In surveys, community composition, biomass and richness were all strongly influenced by flood-related habitat disturbance, although disturbance influenced each trophic level via different mechanisms. Experiments indicated that macroinvertebrate prey communities were primarily structured by physical disturbance effects, whereas predatory fish communities were structured by physical disturbance effects and disturbance-mediated changes to prey communities. Prey community biomass and composition affected fish species identity and abundance and an in situ stream channel experiment suggested that prey communities were structured by trade-offs between resisting biotic interactions in physically stable environments and successfully exploiting highly disturbed habitats. The prey community traits associated with different disturbance regimes then directly influenced the composition and predatory impact of the resultant fish communities. In addition to disturbance-mediated biotic interactions, abiotic gradients also provided strong selection pressures on predatory fish communities. In particular, disturbance and habitat size strongly influenced predator community responses (e.g., biomass and maximum body size) in surveys and experiments. However, a habitat’s capacity to support predator community biomass was largely determined by its size. Food-web structure changed with habitat size; small streams supported more prey than predator biomass, whereas large streams had inverted biomass pyramids (i.e., more predator than prey biomass). Similar relationships between food-web structure and habitat size were found in grassland and forested streams, but terrestrial invertebrate subsidies meant that forested streams supported more predator biomass per unit area than grassland stream food webs. My results indicate that human actions resulting in habitat loss (e.g., water abstraction or river impoundment) and increases in flood-related disturbance events (e.g., climate change) are likely to have significant impacts on stream food webs, ultimately leading to habitats that support smaller fish communities (i.e., less biomass, smaller body size). This means that ecologists and managers will need to consider the separate, interactive and indirect effects of disturbance and habitat size on ecological communities if we are to accurately predict and manage food-web responses to global environmental change.