Life and death in a diminutive ecosystem

Ecosystems are big things, as they encompass an entire community of organisms and the nonliving factors (such as nutrients and water) that interact with the community. So we’re accustomed to thinking about the Serengeti as an ecosystem, as it includes (among many things) the large animals, such as lions, wildebeest and buffalo that live there, the animals and plants they eat, and the soils and nutrients that feed these plants.

But ecosystems can also be tiny. Let’s think about an individual tank bromeliad, Quesnelia arvensis, which can hold up to 3 liters of water in tanks formed where individual leaves come together. Gustavo Romero has identified over 140 species of invertebrates that live within these natural tanks, including large predators such as damselfly and tabanid larvae, and many species of smaller predators (mesopredators) including a diverse group of chironomid midges. The larger predators eat the smaller predators, while predators of both sizes eat a very diverse group of detritivores – animals that feed on the remains of dead organisms. The terrestrial fauna in the immediate vicinity are spiders. Visitors from the surrounding forest ecosystem include 12 bird species and 6 frog species, which forage on larvae within the bromeliads.

Cantorchilus longirostris on bromeliad (Quesnelia arvensis) leaf

Long-billed marsh wren perches on the tip of bromeliad leaf.  This bird can use its long beak to probe for invertebrates living within the bromeliad tank. Credit: Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri

Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri and his colleagues had previously done research demonstrating how insectivorous birds hanging out near bromeliads inhibited dragonflies from ovipositing (laying eggs) within the bromeliad tank. As these birds were much larger than the animals living within the tanks, Breviglieri and Romero hypothesized that the birds would focus on eating the largest items offered to them by this ecosystem. By removing the largest items (the top predators), birds increase the biomass of the prey of these top predators, including detritivores. Thus bird predation should indirectly increase decomposition rate and nutrient availability.

Breviglieri food web

Effects of birds and frogs on bromeliad trophic cascades. Solid arrows are direct effects and dashed arrows are indirect effects (for example frogs eat top predators, thereby indirectly increasing mesopredators).  Wider arrows are stronger effects.

Trophic cascades, a process in which the effects of consumption within an ecosystem cascade down from higher to lower feeding levels, can be difficult to study. The problem is that one favorite approach is to remove predators (the top trophic level) and see if prey abundance increases while the food of these prey decreases, and so on. This is extremely challenging when top predators are lions or wolves and ecosystem area encompasses thousands of kilometers, but much easier when predators are birds or frogs, and each ecosystem is a tank bromeliad. Simply put a cage over a tank bromeliad and presto!, no birds or frogs can get in.

Dr. Crasso Paulo B. Breviglieri building the cages that isolated the bromeliads

Breviglieri with a caged bromeliad. Credit: Jennifer Tezuka

Breviglieri and Romero collected 30 tank bromeliads from the forest, and meticulously cleaned each plant to remove all organisms and organic matter. They filtered and homogenized the water from the bromeliads, and returned 1 liter of water to each plant so that each plant began the experiment with the same quantity of water and microorganisms. The researchers then added equal numbers of organisms to each bromeliad from all of the trophic levels, ranging from apex predators such as damselflies down to detritivores, such as shredders, which eat dead plant leaves and begin the break down process. They also added 10 leaves to each tank for detritivore consumption and further decomposition.

For their experiment, Breviglieri and Romero had three different treatments, with 10 bromeliads per treatment: (1) caged, with each bromeliad enclosed within a steel mesh that allowed insects through but restricted birds and frogs, (2) open-cage control, with each bromeliad only partially enclosed so predators had free access, (3) uncaged control. They returned these to the field at 40 meter intervals, and allowed 155 days to pass.

Larva of zygoptera on bromeliad (Quesnelia arvensis)leaf

Bromeliad with a damselfly larva (top predator) that for unknown reasons has climbed out of the tank onto a leaf.  A bird flew to a nearby perch, but the alert damselfly dove back down into the tank, earning a 9.6 from the judges. Credit: Crasso Paulo Bosco Breviglieri

After 155 days, Breviglieri and Romero collected all of the bromeliads, and identified, counted and weighed (dry weight) all of the organisms. They discovered that the dry mass of invertebrates was much greater in the caged treatments than either control (Figure A). The abundance of apex predators (damselflies and tabanids) did not increase; but the size of individuals increased dramatically (Figure B). Mesopredators increased in abundance (Figure C), while shredder abundance declined sharply (Figure D). Shredder larvae forage on sediment and are a favorite damselfly food item, so it is not surprising that shredders declined, given the sharp increase in damselfly size, and presumably appetite.


Lower shredder abundance in the caged bromeliads led to a sharp decline in decomposition rates (left graph below). In theory, this should make fewer nutrients available to the bromeliads and reduce bromeliad growth. In contrast to expectations, caged bromeliads actually grew more leaves (right graph below), despite the reduction in decomposition rates. Breviglieri and Romero remind us that the greater mass of larvae were producing a much greater mass of fecal matter and prey carcasses, both of which are very nutrient rich. Also, higher predation rates can cause some insects to mature and leave their tank at a smaller size, consuming fewer nutrients while in the larval form, and leaving more nutrients for each plant to use for its own growth.


Decomposition rate measured as detrital mass lost (left graph), and growth rate measured as new leaves grown by the bromeliads (right graph), for caged, open-caged and uncaged controls.

Clearly, there are many unanswered questions about this trophic cascade. For example, why don’t the number of top predators increase in abundance when birds and frogs are excluded? When I asked him this question, Breviglieri suggested that two processes could explain this finding. First, top predators eat smaller larvae of their own species. Second, female insects can chemically sense the presence of predators in these bromeliads, and refrain from ovipositing in plants hosting large predators.

Perhaps most important, can we extend the conclusions from these small ecosystems to larger ecosystems? In nature there are many analogous ecosystems in which predators have strategies for crossing boundaries and influencing ecosystem processes. For example, many birds dive into lakes searching for fish and invertebrates. Moving in the opposite direction, banded-archerfish spit out water jets to dislodge invertebrates from adjacent vegetation into the water, and crocodiles leave rivers to grab and consume convenient gnus. In these systems, as in bromeliads, predators cross ecosystem borders to feed, and it is important for us to understand if there are any general patterns in how these visitors from the outside affect ecosystem functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Breviglieri, Crasso Paulo Bosco, and Gustavo Q. Romero. 2017. Terrestrial vertebrate predators drive the structure and functioning of aquatic food webs. Ecology. doi:10.1002/ecy.1881.  It was published online on June 12, and should appear shortly in print. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Limpet larvae and their fantastic voyage

As he began his PhD program, Takuya Yahagi was puzzled by some laboratory findings. Juvenile red blood limpets, Shinkailepas myojinensis, seemed to survive and grow extraordinarily well at temperatures between 15-25° C. Adult limpets live in deep sea vent communities, where temperatures generally range between 6-11° C.

limpet photo

Adult Shinkailepas myojinensis.  These are approximately 6 mm in length. Credit: Takuya Yahagi.

Yahagi and his colleagues wondered why limpets are making babies that survive and grow at much higher temperatures than they are likely to experience after hatching.

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 10.48.26 AM

Deep sea hydrothermal vent community at 795 meters depth at Myojinsho Caldera in the northwest Pacific. White patches on the rocks are vast communities of chemosynthetic bacteria which are being grazed by purple/pinkish limpets. You can also see the white feathery feeding legs of a barnacle population in the upper portion of the photo. Credit: JAMSTEC

Yahagi reasoned that perhaps, in the natural world, the limpet juveniles live in different (warmer) environments than do their parents. If they migrated closer to the sea surface, their world would be somewhat warmer. But limpet babies are microscopic, so capturing them near the sea surface (and knowing that you had captured them!) is very challenging. Working with three other researchers, Yahagi decided to collect indirect evidence to test the hypothesis that baby limpets migrate to the surface where they feed and grow before returning to the ocean depths.


Larval S. myojinensis limpet 156 days after hatching. sh=shell, f =foot, e=eye, vl=velar lobe.

Initially, the researchers needed to determine what temperatures these growing limpets preferred. With the help of a remotely operated submarine, they collected adult limpets laden with egg capsules, and placed newly hatched larvae into separate containers under different conditions. Some larvae were fed and raised at one of six different temperatures: 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30° C. Other larvae were starved at 5, 15 or 25° C to see how long they survived at different temperatures. If the larvae were migrating upwards to warmer waters, it was important to see how long they could survive until they arrived at the richer food sources near the surface.

Starved larvae survived up to 150 days at the lowest temperature, and for more than three weeks at 25° C, which provided ample time for upward migration (even at very mellow baby limpet swimming speeds). Fed larvae grew much more quickly at warmer temperatures, with best growth at 25° C, and no growth at 5-10° C, which is the approximate temperature at hydrothermal vents.. Larvae initially grew quickly at 30° C, but long term exposure to that temperature killed them.


Growth (shell length) of fed larvae at different temperatures.

These temperature profiles corresponded to temperatures at the sea surface down to about 100 meters, which ranged between 19-28° C. This correspondence supported the hypothesis that juveniles migrated upwards in the water column after hatching. But could Yahagi and his colleagues find any direct evidence for this vertical migration? To answer this question, they video-recorded new hatchlings in a clear plastic bath, and measured how fast these limpets swam, and what direction they preferred. They discovered that new hatchlings constantly swam upward in their test bath, and swimming speed was considerably faster at warmer temperatures.

The sea surface is a wonderful place to find food, because sunlight is abundant, so there are abundant phytoplankton to satisfy even the most voracious juvenile limpets. But sea surfaces also have very strong currents which can whisk juvenile limpets hundreds or thousands of kilometers away. The upshot is that vertical migration and wide dispersal of juveniles by ocean currents can introduce new genes into far-away limpet populations.

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 10.48.05 AM

A hot vent animal community at 700 meters depth at Minami-Ensei Knoll in the northwest Pacific. Prevalent groups include lobsters (white), two species of shrimp, mussels and two different limpet species. Credit: JAMSTEC.

Gene flow – the movement of genes from one population to another – has some important genetic impacts. Without gene flow, two populations that are separated from each other can become genetically distinct. But the mixing of genes from long-distance dispersal can prevent this from occurring. The researchers compared 1218 base pairs of the COI gene from 77 adult limpets that were collected from four different sites which were separated, in some cases, by more than 1000 kilometers. In support of the gene flow hypothesis they found no evidence of any genetic differentiation among the four populations.

Yahagi Fig1

Hydrothermal vent fields in the northwest Pacific Ocean.  Black squares are limpet collection sites for this study.  Notice the vast distances separating these populations. 

Gene flow requires long distance dispersal, and the adult limpets travel very little along the sea floor. This finding of no genetic differentiation among the geographically separated populations supports the hypothesis that the juveniles migrate upwards, feed on abundant phytoplankton, and are carried to new distant environments. There, they mature and settle into new ocean vent communities where they can feed on the superabundant chemosynthetic bacteria associated with the ocean vents. But we still don’t know how limpets find a new ocean vent community – do they migrate, checking out possible vent habitats, while they are still juveniles and still capable of swimming? Do they have sense organs that pick up environmental cues such as hydrogen sulfide content, water temperature, turbulence or noise from vent emissions, to help them complete their fantastic ocean voyage?

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Yahagi, Takuya, Hiromi Kayama Watanabe, Shigeaki Kojima, and Yasunori Kano. 2017. Do larvae from deep‐sea hydrothermal vents disperse in surface waters? Ecology 98: 1524-1534Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Biological control: birds vs. (insects vs. insects)

We all know that birds eat crop-destroying bugs, so we might think that farmers would welcome insectivorous birds to their fields with radiant rakes or happy hoes. But not so fast! Research by Ingo Grass and his colleagues alerts us to the reality that not all insects are created equal. Some insects eat crops, but some insects eat insects that eat crops.

Aphids are one of the worst scourges of the agricultural world. They suck the phloem sap from many plant species; this action can kill the plant directly, and also cause infections by plant pathogens and viruses. Fortunately for farmers, many animals enjoy eating aphids, including birds such as the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, and insects such as ladybird beetles and hoverfly larvae.


Hoverfly larva consumes an aphid while a second aphid looks on. Credit: Beatriz Moisset.

Grass and his colleagues knew that sparrows eat both aphids and hoverflies, but they did not know how the effects of bird predation on these insects cascaded down to the oats and wheat crops grown near Gottingen, Germany. Their research tested the hypothesis that sparrows eat so many hoverflies that aphid abundance actually increases (despite also being eaten by sparrows), and oat and wheat abundance decreases (top food web in the diagram below). If so, they reasoned that removing the birds would increase hoverfly abundance, thereby decreasing aphids and increasing grain abundance (bottom food web).


Agricultural food web with (top) and without (bottom) sparrows. Arrows show consumption, with dashed arrows indicating weak effects, and solid arrows and doubled organisms indicating strong effects.

The researchers set up an experiment with 11 nest boxes strategically placed between an oat field and a wheat field. Each box was equipped with a camera, so the researchers could see what the parents fed to their nestlings. In addition, Grass and his colleagues set up eight 4 X 5 meter plastic mesh exclosures which excluded birds, but allowed insects free access. They periodically surveyed 50 plants in each exclosure and in equal-sized control plots for hoverflies and aphids over the course of the sparrow breeding season. Because these birds can have three broods, this project kept them (the sparrows and the researchers) busy from early May to late July.


The birds fed very little on the two grain fields during the first brood, but towards the end of their second brood, they turned their attention to feeding on insects from the two grain fields, and later to eating the ripening grain. One important finding is that bird predation severely reduced hoverfly abundance. By early July hoverfly abundance was about 1 per 50 shoots when birds were present, and more than 3 per 50 shoots when birds were excluded (top graph below).



How did hoverfly consumption translate to aphid abundance? As you can see from the bottom graph, by early July, aphid abundance without birds was considerably lower than aphid abundance in the presence of birds. Taken together, these findings indicate that European Tree Sparrows consume hoverflies, which ultimately leads to an increase in aphid abundance.

Grass and his colleagues conclude that insectivorous birds can interfere with natural pest control of cereal production in central Europe. When birds were experimentally excluded, aphid densities declined 24% in wheat and 26% in oat crops. European Tree Sparrows were doubly bad for the crops, as they also harvested substantial quantities of grain from these fields to feed their third brood. The researchers argue that management of biological control systems for agriculture requires a broad food-web perspective that accounts for trophic cascades, such as the interactions that occur among sparrows, hoverflies, aphids and various types of economically important grain crops.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Grass, Ingo, Katrin Lehmann, Carsten Thies, and Teja Tscharntke. 2017. Insectivorous birds disrupt biological control of cereal aphids. Ecology 98 (6): 1583-1590Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.