Experimental Detritus Manipulations Unite Surface and Cave Stream Ecosystems Along a Common Energy Gradient


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August 2017


Subsidies of detritus from donor habitats are important energy sources for many ecosystems, but understanding their role in structuring recipient food webs requires comparative experimental studies along the full spectrum of detrital fluxes. Here we report results from an experimental addition of maize (Zea mays L.) litter to a detritus-poor cave stream ecosystem, which we then compare with analogous, past experiments using detritus-rich surface stream ecosystems that similarly have detritus-based food webs and extremely low in situ primary production. Bulk-tissue and compound-specific stable isotope analyses showed that maize litter carbon (C) was rapidly assimilated by microbes and transferred via successive trophic levels to the top of the cave stream food web (omnivorous crayfishes and predatory salamanders). All trophic levels increased in abundance and biomass, but only facultative cave taxa, that is those also found in surface streams, contributed to this numerical response. The lack of response by obligate cave species presumably occurred because evolutionary trade-offs associated with adaptations to low-C environments constrained their population-level responses during the one-year period of the litter addition. Comparison of the responses of the cave community with the analogous litter manipulation experiments in surface streams showed strong convergence in the functional relationship between invertebrate and detritus biomass (R 2 = 0.72, P < 0.0001). Our results suggest that these seemingly disparate stream food webs lie along a single, common gradient of detritus supply, occupied at its extreme minimum by communities of obligate cave taxa adapted to low-energy environments.


Bottom Up, Cave, Detritus, Donor Control, Food Webs, Macroinvertebrates, Microbes, Resource Limitation, Stream, Subsidy

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Ecosystems, Vol. 21 (2017-08-17).