Experimental evidence for the decline of submerged vegetation in freshwater ecosystems by the invasive Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis)

  • Jonas SchoelynckEmail author
  • Jan-Willem Wolters
  • Johannes Teuchies
  • Natacha Brion
  • Sara Puijalon
  • Dante M. L. Horemans
  • Heleen Keirsebelik
  • Lieven Bervoets
  • Ronny Blust
  • Patrick Meire
Original Paper


The Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) is a damaging invader which is designated as a species of Union Concern within the European Union. A negative impact of the crabs on macrophyte vegetation in lowland rivers is suspected but not yet proven or quantified. We have performed a mesocosm study that combines a density gradient of Chinese mitten crabs (0, 0.3, 1.0 and 2.5 ind. m−2) with chemical stress (2350 µg EDTA L−1 + 258 µg glyphosate L−1) or light limitation stress (− 70% irradiance compared to control) on water plants (Myriophyllum spicatum). The results clearly demonstrate that the crabs are capable of removing plant shoots effectively which can lead to a complete elimination of the vegetation. Generally, the higher the crab density, the sooner the plants started to disappear and the sooner the vegetation was completely removed. Additional light and chemical stress accelerated this process: plant disappearance at a crab density of 0.3 ind. m−2 compared to 1.0 ind. m−2 in the control treatments. Video recording, plant strength and crab pinch strength measurements and stable isotope signatures of δ13C and δ15N in the Chinese mitten crabs and their possible food sources showed that directly eating the plants is causing only minor damage to the plants. Most damage comes from the movement of the crabs and crab–crab interactions during which they use their chelae to grasp the shoots. We conclude that a decline of vegetation as a consequence of Chinese mitten crab behaviour can be a realistic scenario in freshwater ecosystems and warrants close attention and monitoring. Being primary producers and ecological engineers, macrophytes are key species in these ecosystems, whose services are lost when they disappear and are difficult to restore.


Myriophyllum spicatum Mesocosm experiment Invasive species Glyphosate EDTA Light limitation Plant stress 



The authors would like to thank Maria-Rose Eves-down, Rosanne Reitsema, Steven Jacobs, Lennert Schepers, Babette Muyshondt and Ken Schoutens (University of Antwerp) for their help with the preparation of the experiments and processing of the samples, Brecht Peeters and Paul Van Loon (VMM) for the delivery of freshly caught crabs, David Verstraeten (VUB) for his support with the isotope measurements, Freddy Dardenne (University of Antwerp) for technical support in the Mesodrome, Jana Goyens (University of Antwerp) for lending us her Charge Amplifier, and Raewyn Town for proofreading the manuscript. J.S. is a postdoctoral fellow of FWO (Project No. 12H8616 N). This research was executed with the financial support of the University of Antwerp, BOF KP 2017 (Project No. FFB170019). The Mesodrome was financed through the Hercules funding (contract numbers AUHA/11/04 and G0C4212 N).

Supplementary material

10530_2019_2118_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (142 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 143 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonas Schoelynck
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jan-Willem Wolters
    • 1
  • Johannes Teuchies
    • 2
  • Natacha Brion
    • 3
  • Sara Puijalon
    • 4
  • Dante M. L. Horemans
    • 1
  • Heleen Keirsebelik
    • 1
  • Lieven Bervoets
    • 2
  • Ronny Blust
    • 2
  • Patrick Meire
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Biology, Ecosystem Management Research GroupUniversity of AntwerpWilrijkBelgium
  2. 2.Department of Biology, Systemic Physiological and Ecotoxicological ResearchUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium
  3. 3.Analytical and Environmental GeochemistryVrije Universiteit BrusselBrusselsBelgium
  4. 4.CNRS, UMR 5023, Ecologie des Hydrosystèmes Naturels et AnthropisésUniversité Lyon 1VilleurbanneFrance

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