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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.