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Antagonistic interactions between biological invasion and climate warming stressors in freshwaters

January 17, 2017

Gammarus pulex, a tiny crustacean native to the UK. Image: AJ Cann | Flickr Creative Commons

Freshwater ecosystems around the world are increasingly threatened by multiple stressors: the combined impacts of pollution, water abstraction, invasions, fragmentation, climate warming and so on. However, at present, scientific knowledge on the interactions and impacts of different stressor combinations across ecosystems remains incomplete.

A new study conducted at the University of Leeds, UK, gives new insights into how  simultaneous biological invasions and climate warming may affect freshwater ecosystem functioning. The team, led by Daniel Kenna, used laboratory experiments to study how changes in water temperature affected the rate at which two tiny freshwater crustaceans (one native to the UK, and the other an invasive) processed leaf-litter debris, which is an important source of nutrients commonly found on the bed of rivers and lakes.

Biological invasions are a common stressor in freshwater ecosystems across the world, as non-native species are either introduced by humans, or find their way into ecosystems made newly habitable by environmental change. Invasive species may out-compete native species for food and habitat, or carry harmful diseases (e.g. the signal crayfish in Europe). As a result, an influx of invasive species into a freshwater ecosystem may significantly alter its biodiversity, health and functioning.

Writing in Oecologia, the University of Leeds team describe their experiment involving two micro-crustaceans: Gammarus pulex, an amphipod native to the UK; and the so-called ‘killer shrimp’, Dikerogammarus villosus, a fast growing and comparatively large amphipod which is native to Eastern Europe, but increasingly invasive across the western continent.

Dikerogammarus villosus. Photo by S. Giesen (1998).

The invasive Dikerogammarus villosus, or ‘killer shrimp’. Image: NOAA Great Lakes | Flickr Creative Commons

When matched for size, the team found that the UK native Gammarus was more efficient than the ‘killer shrimp’ at leaf-litter processing. The invasive amphipod preferred warmer water temperatures, suggesting that invasions which displace the native Gammarus under climate warming, may lead to a reduction in leaf-litter processing, and so a decline in ecosystem functioning.

However, the ‘killer shrimp’ is a larger animal (around 30mm to Gammarus’s ~20mm), and large individuals can process leaf litter at a faster rate than smaller ones of comparable size to the native species. In addition, ‘killer shrimp’ processing rates increased at a faster rate in response to increasing water temperatures than those of Gammarus individuals of a similar size.

This means that any decreases in ecosystem functioning caused by the displacement of Gammarus populations by ‘killer shrimp’ invasions may be offset by increases in leaf-litter processing in the invasive species where water temperatures are increased.

As such, the study gives a novel insight into an antagonistic relationship between multiple stressors: where some of the potentially harmful effects of the invasive species (i.e. reduced ecosystem functioning) are largely mitigated by the effects of climate warming.

Kenna, D., Fincham, W.N.W., Dunn, A.M. et al. (2016) Antagonistic effects of biological invasion and environmental warming on detritus processing in freshwater ecosystems. Oecologia doi:10.1007/s00442-016-3796-x (Open access)

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