Differential effects of nutrient-limited primary production on primary, secondary or tertiary consumers


Nutritional imbalances between predator and prey are the rule rather than the exception at the lower end of food webs. We investigated the role of different grazers in the propagation of nutritionally imbalanced primary production by using the same primary producers in a three-trophic-level food chain and a four-trophic-level food chain experimental setup. The three-trophic-level food chain consisted of a classic single-cell primary producer (Rhodomonas salina), a metazoan grazer (the copepod Acartia tonsa) and a top predator (the jellyfish Gonionemus vertens), while we added a protozoan grazer (Oxyrrhis marina) as primary consumer to the food chain to establish the four-trophic-level food chain. This setup allowed us to investigate how nutrient-limitation effects change from one trophic level to another, and to investigate the performance of two components of our experimental food chains in different trophic positions. Stoichiometry and fatty acid profiles of the algae showed significant differences between the nutrient-depleted [no N and no P addition (−P), respectively] and the nutrient-replete (f/2) treatments. The differences in stoichiometry could be traced when O. marina was the first consumer. Copepods feeding on these flagellates were not affected by the nutritional imbalance of their prey in their stoichiometry, their respiration rates nor in their developmental rates. In contrast, when copepods were the primary consumer, those reared on the −P algae showed significantly higher respiration rates along with significantly lower developmental rates. In neither of our two experimental food chains did the signals from the base of the food chains travel up to jelly fish, our top predator.
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