A saltier Great Salt Lake supports a shifting ecosystem

In science, like many other fields, “who you know” can be critical to success. Eric Boyd from Montana State University was introduced to the Great Salt Lake (GSL) ecosystem by his colleague Bonnie Baxter, a professor at Westminster College and the Great Salt Lake Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Baxter was fascinated by microbialites- deposits of carbonate mud of diverse shape and structure, that harbor an impressive diversity and abundance of microorganisms.  Some of these microorganisms are photosynthetic, using dissolved organic carbon from the water to build carbohydrates; as such they are the primary producers which feed the rest of the ecosystem. Baxter impressed upon Boyd the need to understand the ecosystem, which feeds huge populations of two consumer species, the brine fly Ephydra gracilis and the brine shrimp Artemia franciscana. Up to 10 million birds, representing about 250 species, feed on these two species over the course of a year.

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Eric Boyd collects samples from the north arm of GSL. Credit: Bonnie Baxter.

In 1959 a railroad causeway was built that divided GSL into a south and north arm, which differ from each other in one critical way.  The south arm receives freshwater input from three rivers, while the north arm’s only freshwater input is rain and snowmelt.  Both arms are hypersaline; the south arm is 4-5 times saltier than typical ocean water, while the north arm is about twice as salty as the south arm. Boyd and Baxter recognized that these salinity differences were probably impacting the microbial communities in the two arms; in fact preliminary observations indicated that microbialite communities were no longer forming in the north arm.  So when Melody Lindsay began her doctoral research with Boyd, she elected to investigate how salinity was influencing the microbialite communities in the lake.

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Melody Lindsay (right) and Bonnie Baxter (left) planning to sample in the south arm of GSL.  Credit: Jaimi Butler.

Lindsay and her colleagues collected samples of microbialite mats from the south arm of the lake where the salinity of the water measured 15.6% (as a comparison, typical ocean water is about 3.5%).  At each of six salinity levels (8, 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30%), the researchers set up three microcosms of 150 ml of lakewater, which they then inoculated with 10 grams of homogenized microbial mat. They then sampled microbial diversity and abundance four and seven weeks after beginning the experiment.

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Exposed microbialites along the south arm’s shoreline.  Credit: Eric Boyd.

This experiment was conceptually simple, but technically a bit of a challenge.  Microorganisms are difficult to identify and count; and in fact it is likely that some of the species were new to science. Fortunately, researchers can use molecular approaches (quantitative PCR) to measure the quantity of each type of 16S rRNA gene in each microcosm. Each species of microorganism has distinct rRNA genes, so different base sequences indicate different microorganisms.  This allows researchers to estimate how much of each species is present. One restriction is that closely related species will have almost identical rRNA genes, so they may be difficult to distinguish from each other.

Overall, microorganism abundance was 152% greater after four weeks and 128% greater after seven weeks at the 15% salinity. Recall that these samples came from microbialites associated with 15.6% salinity, so this finding indicates good growth at the salinity which the microorganisms have recently experienced.  Interestingly, microorganisms thrived even better at 10% salinity.  But higher salinity levels, particularly  25% and 30%, were very detrimental to microbial growth.

LindsayFig2

Change in abundance of 16S rRNA gene from microcosms incubated for four and seven seeks in comparison to abundance at week 0 for each salinity.  Significant differences are comparisons with abundance at week 0. NS = no significant difference, * P<0.1, ** P<0.01, *** P<0.001, **** P<0.0001. Error bars = 1SE.

The researchers broke down their results into taxonomic Orders, based on the 16S rRNA sequence of each gene. The two most common Orders were Sphingobacteriales and Spirochaetales, which both grew best at low salinity. The next most common Orders were a cyanobacterium from the Order Croococcales, and an alga from the Order Naviculales.  Species from these two taxonomic Orders are foundational to the ecosystem, because they are photosynthetic and relatively large. These dominant producers either directly, or indirectly, feed the rest of the ecosystem. Croococcales grew best at intermediate salinities (10-20%), while Naviculales did best at 8-15%, but also reasonably well at 20% salinity (see the figure below for a summary of the most common Orders).

LindsayFig3

Abundance of taxonomic Orders of Microorganisms incubated at different salinities at 4 and 7 weeks, in comparison to initial abundance (week 0 = yellow square). Darker green squares indicate a greater increase, and darker brown squares indicate a greater decrease in abundance.  The most common Orders are on top, least common are on the bottom. Het = heterotroph, PP = primary producers, PhH = photoheterotroph.

Overall, primary productivity, as measured by how much dissolved organic carbon was taken up by the photosynthesizers, was greatest at 10 and 15%, and declined sharply above 20% salinity.  In addition, brine shrimp, one of the two important animal consumers of microorganisms, hatched and survived best at the lowest salinities.

Mating brine shrimpHans Hillewaert

Two mating brine shrimp under the watchful eyes of an observer. Credit: Hans Hillewaert.

Lindsay and her colleagues conclude that conditions in the south arm are conducive to microbialite communities and the consumers they support.  However, the north arm has much lower productivity, with salinity levels so high that salt is spontaneously crystalizing out of solution in some areas. Given that climate change models predict increased drought severity over the next century in the GSL region, it is very likely that salinity levels will rise throughout the lake.  Over the same time period, humans are expected to increase water usage from the rivers that flow into the lake, which will further drop water levels in the lake, increase salinity in GSL, and dry out many of the microbial mats. This loss of ecosystem production is expected to cascade up the ecosystem, reduce brine shrimp abundance and ultimately the abundance and diversity of migratory birds that feed on them.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Lindsay, M. R.,  Johnston, R. E.,  Baxter, B. K., and  Boyd, E. S.  2019.  Effects of salinity on microbialite‐associated production in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Ecology  100( 3):e02611. 10.1002/ecy.2611. 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.

What grows up must go down: plant species richness and soils below.

Almost 20 years ago, Dorota Porazinska was a postdoctoral researcher investigating whether plant diversity influenced the diversity of organisms that lived in the soil below these plants, including bacteria, protists, fungi and nematodes (collectively known as soil biota).  Surprisingly, she and her colleagues discovered no linkages between aboveground and belowground species diversity.  She suspected that two issues were responsible for this lack of linkage. First, the early study lumped related species into functional groups – for example nematodes that eat bacteria, or nematodes that eat fungi.  Lumping simplifies data collection but loses a lot of data because individual species are not distinguished.  Back in those days, identifying species with DNA analysis was time-consuming, expensive, and often impractical. The second issue was that even if aboveground-belowground diversity was linked, it might be difficult to detect.  Ecosystems are very complex, and many belowground species make a living off of legacies of carbon or other nutrients that are the remains of organisms that lived many generations ago.   These legacy organic nutrient pools allow for indirect (and thus more difficult to detect) linkages between aboveground and belowground species.

Porazinska and her colleagues reasoned that if there were aboveground/belowground relationships, they would be easiest to detect in the simplest ecosystems that lacked significant pools of legacy nutrients. They also used molecular techniques that were not readily available for earlier studies to identify distinct species based on DNA analysis. The researchers established 98 1-m radius circular plots at the Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research Site in the Colorado, USA Rocky Mountains. At each plot, they identified and counted each vascular plant, and recorded the presence of moss and lichen.  They also censused soil biota by using a variety of DNA amplification and isolation techniques that allowed them to identify bacteria, archaea, protists, fungi and nematodes to species.

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Field assistant Jarred Huxley surveys plants in a high species richness plot. Credit Dorota L. Porazinska.

As expected in this alpine environment, plant species richness was quite low, averaging only 8 species per plot (range = 0 – 27).  In contrast to what had been found in other ecosystems, high plant diversity was associated with high diversity of soil biota.

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Relationship between plant richness (x-axis) and soil biota richness (y-axis) for (A) bacteria, (B) eukaryotes (excluding fungi and nematodes), (C) fungi, and (D) nematodes.  OTUs are operational taxonomic units, which represent organisms with very similar or identical DNA sequences on a marker gene.  For our purposes, they represent distinct species.

Looking at the graphs above, you can see that different groups responded to different degrees; nematodes had the strongest response to increases in plant richness while fungi had the weakest response.  When viewed at a finer level, some groups of soil organisms, including photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria and green algae actually decreased, presumably in response to competition with aboveground plants for light and possibly nutrients.

Given the strong relationship between plant species richness and soil biota richness, Porazinska and her colleagues next explored whether high plant richness was associated with soil nutrient levels (nutrient pools).  In general, there was a strong correlation between plant species richness and nutrient pools (see graphs below).  But soil moisture, and the ability of soil to hold moisture were the two most important factors associated with nutrient pools.

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Amount (micrograms per gram of soil) of carbon (left graph) and nitrogen (right graph) in relation to plant species richness.

Ecologists studying soil processes can measure the rates at which microorganisms are metabolizing nutrients such as carbon, phosphorus and nitrogen.  The expectation was that if high plant species richness was associated with higher soil biota richness, and larger soil nutrient pools, then the activity of enzymes that metabolize soil nutrients should proportionally increase with these factors.  The researchers found that enzyme activity was very low where plants were absent or rare, and greatest in complex plant communities.  But the most important factors influencing enzyme activity were the amount of organic carbon present within the soil, and the ability of the soil to hold water.

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Patchy vegetation at the field site. Credit: Cliffton P. Bueno de Mesquita.

Porazinska and her colleagues hypothesize that the relationship between plant species richness, soil biota richness, nutrient pools, and soil processes such as enzyme activity, exist in most ecosystems, but are obscured by indirect linkages between these different levels.  They hypothesize that these relationships in other ecosystems such as grasslands and forests are difficult to observe.  In these more complex ecosystems, carbon inputs into the soil form large legacy carbon pools. These carbon pools, and the ability of the soil to hold nutrient pools, fundamentally influence the abundance and richness of soil biota. In contrast, in nutrient-poor soils, such as high Rocky Mountain alpine meadows, legacy carbon pools are rare and small. Consequently, plants and soil biota interact more directly, and correlations between plant species diversity and soil biota diversity are much easier to detect.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Porazinska, D. L., Farrer, E. C., Spasojevic, M. J., Bueno de Mesquita, C. P., Sartwell, S. A., Smith, J. G., White, C. T., King, A. J., Suding, K. N. and Schmidt, S. K. (2018), Plant diversity and density predict belowground diversity and function in an early successional alpine ecosystem. Ecology, 99: 1942-1952. doi:10.1002/ecy.2420. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

 

Subsidized Shorelines: where pelagic meets benthic

Chris Harrod met his wife, Christina Dorador, while both were working at the Max Planck Institute for Limnology in Germany.   Subsequently Dorador began a postdoctoral position in her native Chile, and Harrod went for a visit over Christmas, 2007. He was impressed by the beautiful rocky inshore habitat that was dominated by kelp forests and many species of invertebrates and fish.

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Rocky shoreline near Tocopilla, Chile. Credit: Chris Harrod.

As a fisheries biologist, Harrod soon immersed himself in the inshore kelp forest-dominated ocean, and was stunned by the sheer volume of stuff floating around. The water was green rather than blue, and filled with decaying phytoplankton and zooplankton. Where did all this stuff come from? Harrod knew that off the Peruvian and north Chilean coasts, prevailing winds move surface waters away from the shoreline, inducing upwelling of deeper nutrient-rich waters to the surface. This nutrient flux is the basis of a huge anchoveta fishery, which feeds humans, fish, marine invertebrates and marine mammals. He wondered whether the mass of floating debris in the inshore habitat might originate from offshore waters brought in from upwelling, and if the debris actually fueled some of the larger fish and molluscs that dominate inshore kelp forests. The prevailing opinion was that the energy for these fish and molluscs originated from the inshore photosynthetic kelp, rather than from photosynthetic phytoplankton further offshore that get their nutrients from upwelling.

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Two bilagay, Cheilodactylus variegatus, swim among green algae in a debris-laden inshore habitat off the coast of Chile. Credit: Chris Harrod.

While you can ask a fish or mollusc what they had for dinner, it is very difficult to get them to respond. Fortunately, ecologists can use stable isotope ratios – the ratio of a rare (and nonradioactive) isotope of an element to its standard common isotope – to help get the answers they need. Harrod collaborated with several researchers in this study, including his Master’s student, Felipe Docmac, who collected and analyzed much of the data and was the first author of the paper. Docmac and his colleagues used the ratio of heavy and light isotopes of carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) to calculate d13C (the ratio of 13C to 12C) and d15N (the ratio of 15N to 14N) to infer where inshore fish were getting their energy.

The basic question was whether the nutrients supporting the food web were primarily from pelagic or benthic sources. In this case, the pelagic source refers to phytoplankton from the offshore areas of upwelling, while the benthic source refers to kelp and green algae that grow on the bottom (benthos) of the inshore habitat. Docmac and his colleagues collected invertebrates and large fish from five different sites along the north Chilean Coast, and calculated 13C and 15N values from tissue samples. Invertebrates were divided into two groups: filter-feeders were represented by mussels, which fed on suspended materials (such as the prolific floating debris), while benthic grazers were gastropods (snails) that fed on benthic kelp and green algae.

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Five collection sites along the northern coast of Chile.

I’m going to skip the precise details of how stable isotope analysis actually works; I’ll provide enough information so you can understand the findings. There are two important facts to keep in mind. First an animal’s stable isotope ratio is influenced by the stable isotope ratio of its food source. So an animal feeding on prey with high d13C and d15N will itself have higher stable isotope ratios than will an animal feeding on prey with lower d13C and d15N. Second, the stable isotope ratio increases as we go up the food chain in a predictable manner, because the lighter isotopes of carbon and nitrogen tend to be more readily excreted than are the heavier isotopes.

We are now ready to look at the data. First, notice that while there is some variation from location to location, the (Pelagic) mussels tend to have consistently lower d13C values than do the (Benthic) gastropods (X-axis of graph), but fairly equivalent d15N values (Y-axis of graph). The benthivorous fish have, as we would expect from animals higher up the food chain, much higher d15N values than either of the invertebrates. But here is the key. The benthivorous fish have a much lower d13C value than do the benthic invertebrates (gastropods). If gastropods (and presumably other grazers) were in the benthivorous fish food chain, then we would expect the fish to have a higher d13C value than do the benthic gastropods. The researchers thus conclude that these fish are deriving most of their energy from the pelagic debris that is washing in from ocean currents.

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d13C (X-axis) and d15N (Y-axis) stable isotope values in benthivorous fish (black circles).  Bars emanating from each point indicate 95% confidence intervals (CI). Numbers inside symbols indicate the site of origin for each sample (see map above), Also shown are values for filter-feeding mussels (red up-pointing triangles) and grazing gastropods (blue down-pointing triangles). Gray lines indicated predicted values of diets that were based solely (100%) on pelagic or benthic sources.

The researchers were stunned by these findings. Going into the study, Harrod did not know what he would find, but would not have been surprised by a 15% contribution from pelagic sources, or maybe even 30%. But he was blown away that the data indicated estimates of greater than 90% pelagic contribution at most of the sites. Ecologists have long known that one ecosystem may subsidize a second ecosystem with resources. For example, salmon carcasses can provide nutrient subsidies to trees near riverways, or even deeper into the forest after being transported by bears. But the extent of the subsidy in this study is unprecedented. Docmac and his colleagues urge researchers to explore exactly how the pelagic materials get into the food web, and to see whether such subsidies are common near other upwelling zones worldwide so that coastal resources can be managed more effectively.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Docmac, Felipe, Miguel Araya, Ivan A. Hinojosa, Cristina Dorador, and Chris Harrod. 2017. Habitat coupling writ large: pelagic‐derived materials fuel benthivorous macroalgal reef fishes in an upwelling zone. Ecology doi:10.1002/ecy.1936. It was published online on Aug. 2, 2017, and should appear in print very soon. 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.

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.

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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.

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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.