Sensitivity of food webs to nitrogen pollution: a study of three transitional water ecosystems embedded in agricultural landscapes


1 - Transitional water ecosystems constitute extremely complex and productive environments, a preferred route of migrating birds and optimal nursery locations for many fish species. In these interesting environments, descriptors of trophic relationships between species in a web have been suggested as potential integrative and sensitive endpoints for anthropogenic pressure.
2 - To better understand the effects of environmental disturbance on the resident macroinvertebrate assemblage structure, we analysed food webs in three neighbouring transitional water ecosystems located along the Thyrrenian coastal area of Central Italy (Lake Caprolace, Lake Fogliano and Lake Sabaudia), which are affected by different inputs of nitrates from agricultural, farming and urban activities.
3 - Macrozoobenthos, aquatic macrophytes and attached macroalgae, leaf detritus from sediments and suspended organic matter in the water column were sampled at four sites in each ecosystem and stable isotope analysis (C and N) was carried out in order to describe trophic pathways and the food web structure.
4 - ä15N values of macroinvertebrates increased from Caprolace to Sabaudia according to increasing nitrate concentration derived from organic sources. Macrozoobenthic assemblages varied in species composition with the lowest biodiversity found in Sabaudia, the most polluted ecosystem. Also proportion of primary consumers, predators and omnivorous species varied, with cascade effects on food web topology and nutrient flow pathways.
5 - In particular, omnivorous and generalist predators were more numerous in Sabaudia, where food chains were longer and webs less compartmentalised than in Caprolace and Fogliano. In Sabaudia a lower level of web robustness to species loss was also observed.
6 - These results suggest that nitrogen pollution can be responsible of evident changes in the architecture of biodiversity between ecosystems, determining less robust trophic structures with strong implication for biodiversity management and conservation.

DOI Code: 10.1285/i1825229Xv8n1p84

Keywords: transitional waters; macroinvertebrates; stable isotopes; nitrogen pollution; food webs

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