Mechanisms and mitigation of food web change in stream ecosystems
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
Freshwater ecosystems reflect the condition of their surrounding landscape, and thus are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic stressors associated with human land-use. One of the most prevalent stressors on stream ecosystems in agricultural regions, such as the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand, is eutrophication, or increased primary productivity. The aim of this thesis was to investigate effects of eutrophication on stream communities, specifically food web structure and ecosystem function. From a food web perspective, eutrophication is a shift in the form and amount of available energy from externally-produced (allochthonous) to internal (autochthonous) basal resources. Such shifts are frequently associated with land-use intensification, due to riparian vegetation removal and increased nutrient inputs, both of which enhance autochthonous production. A field survey across a gradient of eutrophication showed that eutrophic stream food webs are largely autochthonously-based and often contain large numbers of defended primary consumers, which form trophic bottlenecks and prevent energy from reaching higher trophic levels. Consequently, while there is more total energy available, less of that energy is in a usable form for stream food webs. Moreover, I found that eutrophic streams are largely composed of generalist consumers, which shift their diets to refocus on autochthonous resources with increasing productivity. Given that eutrophication causes food web resources to become more homogenous and was a primary driver of food web change, I tested whether reintroducing allochthonous subsidies would alter or reverse the negative effects of eutrophication. To do this I conducted a short-term community assembly experiment and a year-long population biomass accrual study. I found that the simplified, generalist-dominated communities in eutrophic streams did not respond to changes in resource diversity as predicted by food web theories, which are based on more diverse food webs. After restoration of allochthonous subsidies, defended generalist taxa continued to dominate the invertebrate communities. However, while restoring allochthonous subsidies did not mitigate the numerical dominance of defended consumers, the biomass accrual of other, previously excluded desirable taxa, such as mayflies and predatory invertebrates, increased following resource additions. This indicates that more energy reached the top of the food web, suggesting that resource additions alleviated trophic bottlenecks. Overall, my findings have advanced current knowledge about key mechanisms driving food web responses to both anthropogenic stress and to restoration efforts, which can be applied to improve management and restoration of stream ecosystems.