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Trophic interactions determine the effects of drought on an aquatic ecosystem

Amundrud, Sarah L., Srivastava, Diane S.
Ecology 2016 v.97 no.6 pp. 1475-1483
Bromeliaceae, aquatic ecosystems, aquatic insects, body size, community structure, drought, environmental impact, food webs, insect communities, predators
Species interactions can be important mediators of community and ecosystem responses to environmental stressors. However, we still lack a mechanistic understanding of the indirect ecological effects of stress that arise via altered species interactions. To understand how species interactions will be altered by environmental stressors, we need to know if the species that are vulnerable to such stressors also have large impacts on the ecosystem. As predators often exhibit certain traits that are linked to a high vulnerability to stress (e.g., large body size, long generation time), as well as having large effects on communities (e.g., top‐down trophic effects), predators may be particularly likely to mediate ecological effects of environmental stress. Other functional groups, like facilitators, are known to have large impacts on communities, but their vulnerability to perturbations remains undocumented. Here, we use aquatic insect communities in bromeliads to examine the indirect effects of an important stressor (drought) on community and ecosystem responses. In a microcosm experiment, we manipulated predatory and facilitative taxa under a range of experimental droughts, and quantified effects on community structure and ecosystem function. Drought, by adversely affecting the top predator, had indirect cascading effects on the entire food web, altering community composition and decomposition. We identified the likely pathway of how drought cascaded through the food web from the top‐down as drought→predator→shredder→decomposition. This stress‐induced cascade depended on predators exhibiting both a strong vulnerability to drought and large impacts on prey (especially shredders), as well as shredders exhibiting high functional importance as decomposers.