Tropical trophic cascade slows decomposers

In the rough and tumble natural world, consumers such as lions, lady bugs, llamas and lizards get most of the press, while producers such as peas, pumpkins and phytoplankton come in a close second.  Consumers earn their name because they get their energy from consuming other organisms, while producers produce their own energy (using photosynthesis or chemosynthesis) from inorganic molecules.  Often ignored in this ecosystem structural scheme are decomposers, which get their energy from breaking down the tissue of dead organisms.  They should not be ignored.  Much of the energy transferred through ecosystems passes through decomposers.

One reason they are overlooked is that most decomposers are tiny. Some of the largest decomposers are detritivores, which actually eat the dead materials (detritus), in contrast to other microbial decomposers such as bacteria and fungi.  Shredders are detritivores commonly found in streams and rivers; these aquatic insects eat portions of dead leaves and, in the process, shred them into much smaller pieces that energize other decomposers. Many researchers had noted that shredders were relatively rare in tropical streams, in part because there are many other larger consumers in the ecosystem that are willing to eat dead leaves and any shredders associated with them. Thus Troy Simon and his colleagues expected that shredders, such as the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, would play, at best, a minor role in the streams they studied in the Northern Range Mountains in Trinidad.


A typical headwater stream located in the Northern Range mountains of Trinidad. Waterfalls in the uppermost reaches of these streams act as a barrier to the upstream movement of guppies, but not killifish and crabs, which can move over land during periods of heavy rain. Credit: Joshua Goldberg.

We will discuss interactions between several species in these aquatic systems.  Trees are important producers as they shed leaves into the streams; these leaves are broken down by shredders such as the aforementioned caddisflies and also microbial decomposers.   The major consumers are omnivorous crabs, Eudaniela garmani, which eat leaves and caddisflies (and many other items), and two fish species. Killifish, Anablepsoides hartii, eat caddisflies, other invertebrates and also the occasional small fish (including fish eggs).


Hart’s killifish (Anablepsoides hartii) are primarily insectivorous and major consumers of leaf‐shredding caddisflies. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Guppies, Poecilia reticulata, are much smaller than killifish, maxing out at 32 mm long in comparison to the killifish maximum length of 100 mm.  But guppies are much more omnivorous, feeding on leaves, leaf-shredding insects and even killifish eggs and larvae.


Male (left) and female (right) Trinidadian guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Guppies are omnivorous, feeding broadly on detritus as well as plant and animal prey, including young killifish. Credit: Pierson Hill.

Amazingly, killifish can disperse over land, as can crabs (less amazingly).  This allows them to bypass barrier waterfalls during wet periods, which results in them being the only large consumer species above waterfalls in many Trinidad streams.  Guppies lack killifish dispersal abilities, so they are often confined to stream reaches below significant waterfalls.  These species, and their consumption patterns are highlighted in the figure below.


Diagram of the two detrital-based food webs.  Above the waterfall is the KC reach, named after its two important consumers, killifish and crabs.  Below the waterfalls is the KCG reach, named after its three important consumers, killifish, crabs and guppies. Arrows show direction of energy flow within the ecosystem.

Simon and his colleagues wanted to know how interactions among all of these species influenced the rate of leaf decomposition.  The researchers constructed identical-size leaf packs of recently fallen leaves of the Guarumo tree, Cercropia peltata, and attached them to copper wire frames within each reach of the stream.  They periodically harvested a subset of the packs and measured the amount of decomposition by drying and weighing the leaves, and comparing this weight to the starting weight of the leaf pack.  In addition, they collected all invertebrates > 1 mm long from each leaf pack and identified them to species or genus.

To control the consumers involved in each interaction, Simon and his colleagues constructed underwater electric exclosures which created an electric field that convinced all fish and crabs to exit (and stay out) within 30 seconds of being turned on, but did not influence invertebrates in any detectable way.  Killifish are active day and night, guppies only during the day, and the researchers believed that crabs were active primarily at night. The researchers set up four treatments: control (C) with 24 hour access to consumers, experimental (E) with 24 hour exclusion of consumers, day-only exclusion (D) and night-only exclusion (N).  The researchers expected that the day-only exclusion treatments would selectively exclude guppies, while night-only exclusion would selectively exclude crabs. They then placed the leaf packs into each exclosure, turned on the current, and ran the experiment for 29 days.  Five replicates of each treatment were done above and below the waterfalls.


Electric exclosures established in the stream. Leaf packs were tied to the copper frame and periodically harvested over the 29 days of the experiment. Rectangular tiles shown in treatment frames were part of a separate study. Credit: Troy N. Simon.

We’re finally ready for some data.  The two graphs on the left represent the downstream reach below the waterfalls, where killifish, crabs and guppies are naturally present (KCG).  The two graphs on the right represent the upstream reach above the falls, where only killifish and crabs are naturally present.  There was no evidence in the downstream reach that excluding consumers influenced decomposition rates (top left graph).  However, when consumers were present (C treatment) in the upstream reach, decomposition rates were reduced by about 40% in comparison to treatments when consumers were partially (D and N) or completely (E) excluded (top right graph).


Mean (+SE) for (a,b) decay rate of Cecropia peltata leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (c,d)  biomass of Phylloicus hansoni (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia). 24-hour treatments allow full macroconsumer access [control (C)] or completely exclude macroconsumers [electric (E)]. Twelve-hour treatments exclude access to either diurnally active [day (D)] or nocturnally active [night (N)] macroconsumers. Different letters above the bars indicate statistically significant differences between the treatments.

The two bottom graphs above look at the biomass of the caddisfly, Phylloicus hansoni, which was easily the most abundant macroinvertebrate within the leaf packs.  There was no significant difference in caddisfly abundance below the waterfall regardless of treatment (bottom left graph above).  Above the waterfalls, caddisfly abundance was severely depressed in the controls (C) where killifish were free to feed on them (bottom right graph).

One piece of evidence that killifish ate caddisflies and depressed their abundance was that surviving caddisflies were much smaller in the control treatment leaf packs than in any of the experimental treatment leaf packs.  This suggests that  killifish with unimpeded access to caddisflies were picking off the largest individuals.


Mean (+SE) caddisfly length in mm (y-axis) for each treatment, 

These findings support the hypothesis that a trophic cascade prevails in the KC reach, in which killifish eat caddisflies, thereby slowing down decomposition. But in the KCG reach, guppies eat killifish eggs and larvae and compete with them for resources, thereby reducing killifish abundance, and interfering with the establishment of a trophic cascade.

Lastly, the researchers explored whether the same trophic cascade operated in upper reaches but not in lower reaches of other streams in the area. Surveys of six streams indicate a definite “yes” answer, with Cecropia decay rate and caddisfly biomass much lower in the upper reaches.


(Top) Mean (+SE) decay rate for Cecropia peltata
leaves (percentage of mass lost per day) and (b) caddisfly biomass (milligrams of dry mass per gram of Cecropia) in the landscape study (n = 6 streams). Different letters above bars indicate statistically significant differences  between treatments.

Surveys of each stream indicated that killifish were much more abundant in the upper reaches where guppies were not found, but guppies were much more prevalent in the lower reaches than were killifish.  These findings indicate that this detrital-based trophic cascade, with killifish eating caddisflies and thereby slowing down decomposition, is a general pattern in the upper reaches of these tropical streams.  However, Simon and his colleagues caution us that different streams will have different groups of organisms playing different ecological roles.  Thus the presence of detrital-based trophic cascades will depend on the particulars of which species are present and how abundant they are in a particular stream.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Simon, T. N., A. J. Binderup, A. S. Flecker, J. F. Gilliam, M. C. Marshall, S. A. Thomas, J. Travis, D. N. Reznick, and C. M. Pringle. 2019. Landscape patterns in top-down control of decomposition: omnivory disrupts a tropical detrital-based trophic cascade. Ecology 100(7):e02723. 10.1002/ecy.2723. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.


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