Does the nutrient stoichiometry of primary producers affect the secondary consumer Pleurobrachia pileus?
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We investigated whether phosphorus limitations of primary producers propagate upwards through the food web, not only to the primary consumer level but also onto the secondary consumers’ level. A tri-trophic food chain was used to assess the effects of phosphorus-limited phytoplankton (the cryptophyte Rhodomonas salina) on herbivorous zooplankters (the copepod Acartia tonsa) and finally on zooplanktivores (the ctenophore Pleurobrachia pileus). The algae were cultured in phosphorus-replete and phosphorus-limited media before being fed to two groups of copepods. The copepods in turn were fed to the top predator, P. pileus, in a mixture resulting in a phosphorus-gradient, ranging from copepods having received only phosphorus-replete algae to copepods reared solely on phosphorus-limited algae. The C:P ratio of the algae varied significantly between the two treatments, resulting in higher C:P ratios for those copepods feeding on phosphorus-limited algae, albeit with a significance of 0.07. The differences in the feeding environment of the copepods could be followed to Pleurobrachia pileus. Contrary to our expectations, we found that phosphorus-limited copepods represented a higher quality food source for P. pileus, as shown by the better condition (expressed as nucleic acid content) of the ctenophore. This could possibly be explained by the rather high C:P ratios of ctenophores, their resulting low phosphorus demand and relative insensitivity to P deficiency. This might potentially be an additional explanation for the observed increasing abundances of gelatinous zooplankton in our increasingly phosphorus-limited coastal seas.
KeywordsPhosphorus limitation Ctenophores Ecological stoichiometry Marine food webs Gelatinous zooplankton Trophic transfer
This study is funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG AB 289/2-1) and is part of the AWI Food Web project. We thank all colleagues in the Food Web projects and three anonymous reviewers for stimulating discussions and helpful comments to improve earlier versions of this manuscript.
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