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.

Macroalgal forest

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.

Bilagay

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.

Fig1A

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.

Fig1B

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.

BreviglieriFig3ABCD

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.

BreviglieriFig3EF

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.