Posted by: oikosasa | March 14, 2014

Top-predator effects on variable environments

Thanks to giant water bugs’ ferocious feeding habits and their extreme natural environment, authors Kate S. Boersma and colleagues, now have a greater understanding of how biological communities may respond to predator extinctions under increasing global environmental variability. All after having performed the study “Top predator removals have consistent effects on large species despite high environmental variability” published Early View in Oikos. below is their summary of the study and a presentation of the giant water bug.

We used the giant water bug system to explore the consistency of top predator effects in ecological communities that experience high local environmental variability. We experimentally removed giant water bugs from arid-land stream pool mesocosms in southeastern Arizona, USA, and measured natural background environmental conditions. We inoculated mesocosms with aquatic invertebrates from local streams, removed giant water bugs from half of the mesocosms as a treatment, and measured community divergence at the end of the summer dry season. We repeated the experiment in two consecutive years, which represented two very different biotic and abiotic environments. We found that giant water bug removal consistently affected large-bodied species in both years, increasing the abundance of mesopredators and decreasing the abundance of detritivores, even though the identity of these species varied between years. Our findings highlight the vulnerability of large taxa to top predator extirpations and suggest that the consistency of observed ecological patterns may be as important as their magnitude.

Abedus_vs_Oplonaeshna2

Giant water bug (Abedus herberti) consuming a dragonfly nymph (Oplonaeschna).

At ~3cm in length, giant water bugs (Abedus herberti) may appear unlikely top predators. Yet these aquatic invertebrates dominate the food webs of many small headwater streams in the arid southwestern United States. Giant water bugs use raptorial forelimbs to immobilize prey and piercing mouthparts to inject digestive enzymes and consume the liquefied tissue, allowing them to consume large vertebrate and invertebrate prey. These insects are flightless and thus highly vulnerable to changing hydrology caused by increasing droughts and anthropogenic water withdrawals in arid regions. Streams containing giant water bugs are characterized by seasonal flood/drought cycles and high natural environmental variability, making this an ideal study system to address fundamental questions about the relationship between predator loss and an increasingly variable abiotic environment.

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