Exploring the role of large predators in marsh food webs: evidence for a behaviorally-mediated trophic cascade
The influence of large predators on lower trophic levels in oligotrophic, structurally complex, and frequently disturbed aquatic environments is generally thought to be limited. We looked for effects of large predators in two semi-permanent, spikerush-dominated marshes by excluding large fish (>12 mm body depth) and similarly sized herpetofauna from 1 m2 cages (exclosures) for 2 weeks. The exclosures allowed for colonization by intermediate (in size and trophic position) consumers, such as small fish, shrimp, and crayfish. Exclosures were compared to control cages that allowed large fish to move freely in and out. At the end of the experiment, intermediate-consumer densities were higher in exclosures than in controls at both sites. Decapod crustaceans, especially the riverine grass shrimp (Palaemonetes paludosus), accounted for the majority of the response. Effects of large fish on shrimp were generally consistent across sites, but per capita effects were sensitive to estimates of predator density. Densities of intermediate consumers in our exclosures were similar to marsh densities, while the open controls had lower densities. This suggests that these animals avoided our experimental controls because they were risky relative to the surrounding environment, while the exclosures were neither avoided nor preferred. Although illuminating about the dynamics of open-cage experiments, this finding does not influence the main results of the study. Small primary consumers (mostly small snails, amphipods, and midges) living on floating periphyton mats and in flocculent detritus (“floc”) were less abundant in the exclosures, indicative of a trophic cascade. Periphyton mat characteristics (i.e., biomass, chlorophyll a, TP) were not clearly or consistently affected by the exclosure, but TP in the floc was lower in exclosures. The collective cascading effects of large predators were consistent at both sites despite differences in drought frequency, stem density, and productivity.
Keywordseffect size food web grass shrimp macroinvertebrates predation trophic cascade wetland
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