Disturbance frequency and functional identity mediate ecosystem processes in prairie streams

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Abstract

A major consequence of climate change will be the alteration of precipitation patterns and concomitant changes in the flood frequencies in streams. Species losses or introductions will accompany these changes, which necessitates understanding the interactions between altered disturbance regimes and consumer functional identity to predict dynamics of streams. We used experimental mesocosms and field enclosures to test the interactive effects of flood frequency and two fishes from distinct consumer groups (benthic grazers and water-column minnows) on recovery of stream ecosystem properties (algal form and biomass, invertebrate densities, metabolism and nutrient uptake rates). Our results generally suggest that periphyton communities under nutrient limitation are likely to recover more quickly when grazing and water-column minnows are present and these effects can diminish or reverse with time since the disturbance. We hypothesized that increased periphyton production and biomass was the result of increased nutrient turnover, but decreased light limitation and indirect effects on other trophic levels are alternative explanations. Recovery of stream ecosystem properties after a natural flood differed from mesocosms (e.g. lower algal biomass and no long algal filaments present) and species manipulations did not explain recovery of ecosystem properties; rather, ecosystem processes varied along a downstream gradient of increasing temperature and nutrient concentrations. Different results between field enclosures and experimental mesocosms are attributable to a number of factors including differences in algal and invertebrate communities in the natural stream and relatively short enclosure lengths (mean area=35.8 m2) compared with recirculating water in the experimental mesocosms. These differences may provide insight into conditions necessary to elicit a strong interaction between consumers and ecosystem properties.

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