Variation in Estuarine Consumer Communities Along An Assembled Eutrophication Gradient: Implications for Trophic Instability

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Food webs, Human impact, Ecosystem condition, Predator foraging, Habitat indicators

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A eutrophication gradient was assembled from four spring-fed estuaries and four surface-fed estuaries to determine whether changes in zooplankton and hyperbenthos abundance along the gradient were gradual or abrupt. For 1 year in each estuary, monthly faunal surveys were conducted during nighttime flood tides using oblique plankton-net tows, producing abundance data for 316 taxa. Indicator taxa for the spring-fed and surface-fed groups were identified from a combination of abundance and encounter frequencies. Seventeen of the 20 strong indicator taxa for the spring-fed group (85 %) were benthic, whereas 10 of the 13 strong indicators for the surface-fed group (77 %) were plankton-oriented. The eight communities were ordinated by canonical analysis of principal coordinates (CAP); the estuarine faunas were found to be uniquely distributed along the principal CAP axis. Success of blind reclassification of plankton samples to their respective estuaries of origin ranged from 75 to 100 % (mean, 91 %). Given the assembled gradient was composed of distinctive communities that were distributed across a broad range of trophic states, the transition between benthic and plankton-oriented indicators was investigated and found to be abrupt, with strong shifts occurring nearer the oligotrophic end of the gradient. The CAP ordination agreed with trends in light attenuation, but not dissolved oxygen. We conclude that the abrupt faunal shifts were likely related to differences in basal resource (primary producer) availability brought about by differences in light environment. Abrupt loss of benthic basal resources will affect benthic consumers and those plankton-oriented consumers that intermittently depend on benthic biomass pathways whenever plankton-based pathways are unproductive.

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Estuaries and Coasts, v. 36, p. 951-965