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Drought alters the trophic role of an opportunistic generalist in an aquatic ecosystem

Amundrud, Sarah L., Clay-Smith, Sarina A., Flynn, Bret L., Higgins, Kathleen E., Reich, Megan S., Wiens, Derek R. H., Srivastava, Diane S.
Oecologia 2019 v.189 no.3 pp. 733-744
Chironomidae, Culicidae, aquatic ecosystems, drought, environmental impact, food webs, habitats, larvae, macroinvertebrates, predation, predators
Abiotic change can alter species interactions by modifying species’ trophic roles, but this has not been well studied. Until now, bromeliad-dwelling tipulid larvae were thought to positively affect other macroinvertebrates via a facilitative processing chain. However, under drought, we found the opposite. We performed two microcosm experiments in which we factorially manipulated water level and predation by tipulids, and measured the effects on mosquito and chironomid larvae. The experiments differed in whether high water was contrasted with low or no water, allowing us to distinguish between the effects of desiccation stress (no water) and increased encounter rates due to compression of habitat or reductions in prey mobility (low and no water). We also included a caged tipulid treatment to measure any non-consumptive effects. As well as directly reducing prey survival, reductions in water level indirectly decreased chironomid and mosquito survival by altering the trophic role of tipulids. Our results suggest that increased encounter rates with prey led to tipulids becoming predatory under simulated drought, as tipulids consumed prey under both low and no water. When water level was high, tipulids exerted negative non-consumptive effects on prey survival. Because opportunistic predators are common throughout aquatic ecosystems, the effects of drought on the trophic roles of species may be widespread. Such restructuring of food webs should be considered when attempting to predict the ecological effects of environmental change.