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Metal contamination and food web changes alter exposure to upper trophic levels in upper Blackfoot River basin streams, Montana

Abstract

Reduced invertebrate abundance and diversity are common responses to metals contamination in mining-impacted streams. The resulting changes in community composition may have implications for metals accumulation and transfer through the food web. We investigated how changes in invertebrate community composition (abundance, species richness, and food web complexity) influence metals bioaccumulation and exposure risk to upper trophic levels along a contamination gradient in the upper Blackfoot River Basin, Montana. Invertebrate species richness exhibited the strongest decline with increasing sediment metals concentrations, driven by the loss of metals-sensitive taxa. These changes in invertebrate community composition resulted in a decline in the proportion of invertebrates in the scraper functional feeding group, likely influencing dietary metals exposure to the invertebrate community. Additionally, invertebrates with a strong propensity-to-drift increased with sediment contamination, potentially facilitating metals transfer to fish and higher trophic levels through predation. Using invertebrate exposure values (invertebrate abundance × metals concentrations), we found that moderately contaminated sites in our study area produced both the highest invertebrate exposure values and the highest fish tissue metals concentrations. Considering both changes in invertebrate community composition and metal concentrations is an important step towards understanding and evaluating potential toxic effects to upper trophic levels in mining-impacted streams.

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Data availability

All data generated or analyzed during this study are included in this published article or are available at the University of Montana ScholarWorks [https://scholarworks.umt.edu/geosci_data/2/] [Supplemental data files: Site_descriptions.csv, Site_map.pdf, Water_quality.csv, Fine_sediment_metals.csv, Fish_metals.csv, Fish_population.csv, Invertebrate_community_composition.csv, Invertebrate_metals.csv]

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the US Forest Service. We thank Nick Hehemann, Robert Livesay, Doug Brinkerhoff, and Matt Corsi for field data collection and Johnnie Moore for guidance. We also thank Will Clements and anonymous reviewers for comments that greatly improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jack Landers.

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Handling editor: Checo Colón-Gaud

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Landers, J., Sullivan, S., Eby, L. et al. Metal contamination and food web changes alter exposure to upper trophic levels in upper Blackfoot River basin streams, Montana. Hydrobiologia 830, 93–113 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10750-018-3857-8

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Keywords

  • Pollution
  • Macroinvertebrate community structure
  • Aquatic communities
  • Acid mine drainage
  • Upper blackfoot mining complex