Pharmaceuticals May Disrupt Natural Chemical Information Flows and Species Interactions in Aquatic Systems: Ideas and Perspectives on a Hidden Global Change

  • Ellen Van DonkEmail author
  • Scott Peacor
  • Katharina Grosser
  • Lisette N. De Senerpont Domis
  • Miquel Lürling
Part of the Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology book series (RECT, volume 238)


Pharmaceuticals consumption by humans and animals is increasing substantially, leading to unprecedented levels of these compounds in aquatic environments worldwide. Recent findings that concentrations reach levels that can directly have negative effects on organisms are important per se, but also sound an alarm for other potentially more pervasive effects that arise from the interconnected nature of ecological communities. Aquatic organisms use chemical cues to navigate numerous challenges, including the location of mates and food, and the avoidance of natural enemies. Low concentrations of pharmaceuticals can disrupt this “smellscape” of information leading to maladaptive responses. Furthermore, direct effects of pharmaceuticals on the traits and abundance of one species can cascade through a community, indirectly affecting other species. We review mechanisms by which pharmaceuticals in surface waters can disrupt natural chemical information flows and species interactions. Pharmaceuticals form a new class of chemical threats, which could have far-reaching implications for ecosystem functioning and conservation management.



We want to thank Wim van der Putten and two anonymous reviewers for constructive comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. This is publication 5932 of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW).


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ellen Van Donk
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Scott Peacor
    • 1
    • 3
  • Katharina Grosser
    • 1
    • 4
  • Lisette N. De Senerpont Domis
    • 1
    • 5
  • Miquel Lürling
    • 1
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Aquatic EcologyNetherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)WageningenNetherlands
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and BiodiversityUniversity of UtrechtUtrechtNetherlands
  3. 3.Department of Fisheries and WildlifeMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  4. 4.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  5. 5.Aquatic Ecology & Water Quality Management Group, Dept. Environmental SciencesWageningen UniversityWageningenNetherlands

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