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Institut d’Ecologia Aquàtica

Energy limitation or sensitive predators? Trophic & non-trophic impacts of wastewater pollution (..)

Impacts of environmental stressors on food webs are often difficult to predict because trophic levels can respond in divergent ways, and biotic interactions may dampen or amplify responses. Mor, J.-R., Muñoz, I., Sabater, S., Zamora, L., and Ruhi, A.. 2022. Energy limitation or sensitive predators? Trophic and non-trophic impacts of wastewater pollution on stream food webs. Ecology 103

Impacts of environmental stressors on food webs are often difficult to predict because trophic levels can respond in divergent ways, and biotic interactions may dampen or amplify responses.

Here we studied food-web-level impacts of urban wastewater pollution, a widespread source of degradation that can alter stream food webs via top-down and bottom-up processes. Wastewater may (1) subsidize primary producers by decreasing nutrient limitation, inducing a wide-bottomed trophic pyramid. However, (2) wastewater may also reduce the quality and diversity of resources, which could decrease energy transfer efficiency by reducing consumer fitness, leading to predator starvation. Additionally, (3) if higher trophic levels are particularly sensitive to pollution, primary consumers could be released from predation pressure. We tested these hypotheses in 10 pairs of stream sites located upstream and downstream of urban wastewater effluents with different pollutant levels. We found that wastewater pollution reduced predator richness by ∼34%.

Community size spectra (CSS) slopes were steeper downstream than upstream of wastewater effluents in all except one impact site where predators became locally extinct. Further, variation in downstream CSS slopes were correlated with pollution loads: the more polluted the stream, the steeper the CSS. We estimate that wastewater pollution decreased energy transfer efficiencies to primary consumers by ∼70%, limiting energy supply to predators.

Additionally, traits increasing vulnerability to chemical pollution were overrepresented among predators, which presented compressed trophic niches (δ15N-δ13C) downstream of effluents. Our results show that wastewater pollution can impact stream food webs via a combination of energy limitation to consumers and extirpation of pollution-sensitive top predators. Understanding the indirect (biotically mediated) vs. direct (abiotic) mechanisms controlling responses to stress may help anticipating impacts of altered water quantity and quality, key signatures of global change.

Mor, J.-R., Muñoz, I., Sabater, S., Zamora, L., and Ruhi, A.. 2022. Energy limitation or sensitive predators? Trophic and non-trophic impacts of wastewater pollution on stream food webs. Ecology 103( 2):e03587. 10.1002/ecy.3587

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