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Sensitivity assessment of freshwater macroinvertebrates to pesticides using biological traits

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Assessing the sensitivity of different species to chemicals is one of the key points in predicting the effects of toxic compounds in the environment. Trait-based predicting methods have proved to be extremely efficient for assessing the sensitivity of macroinvertebrates toward compounds with non specific toxicity (narcotics). Nevertheless, predicting the sensitivity of organisms toward compounds with specific toxicity is much more complex, since it depends on the mode of action of the chemical. The aim of this work was to predict the sensitivity of several freshwater macroinvertebrates toward three classes of plant protection products: organophosphates, carbamates and pyrethroids. Two databases were built: one with sensitivity data (retrieved, evaluated and selected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ECOTOX database) and the other with biological traits. Aside from the “traditional” traits usually considered in ecological analysis (i.e. body size, respiration technique, feeding habits, etc.), multivariate analysis was used to relate the sensitivity of organisms to some other characteristics which may be involved in the process of intoxication. Results confirmed that, besides traditional biological traits, related to uptake capability (e.g. body size and body shape) some traits more related to particular metabolic characteristics or patterns have a good predictive capacity on the sensitivity to these kinds of toxic substances. For example, behavioral complexity, assumed as an indicator of nervous system complexity, proved to be an important predictor of sensitivity towards these compounds. These results confirm the need for more complex traits to predict effects of highly specific substances. One key point for achieving a complete mechanistic understanding of the process is the choice of traits, whose role in the discrimination of sensitivity should be clearly interpretable, and not only statistically significant.

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The PhD grant of Alessio Ippolito is covered by DOW Agrosciences. The authors thank Sylvain Dolédec for trait data on some organisms and Astrid Schmidt-Kloiber for providing access to the web database

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Correspondence to A. Ippolito.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.


Online Resource 1 (OR_1.pdf): used trait database and references used for the implementation of the trait database; (PDF 284 kb)

Online Resource 2 (OR_2.pdf): resume of the scores attributed for the assessment of behavioural complexity; (PDF 29 kb)


Online Resource 3 (OR_3.pdf): complete reports of the selected regression models (variables used, evaluation of predictive capacity, fitting and boostrap validation). (PDF 37 kb)

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Ippolito, A., Todeschini, R. & Vighi, M. Sensitivity assessment of freshwater macroinvertebrates to pesticides using biological traits. Ecotoxicology 21, 336–352 (2012).

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