Trophic cul-de-sac, Pyrazus ebeninus, limits trophic transfer through an estuarine detritus-based food web

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Journal Article
Oikos, 2007, 116 (3), pp. 427 - 438
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The importance to food-webs of trophic cul-de-sacs, species that channel energy flow away from higher trophic levels, is seldom considered outside of the pelagic systems in which they were first identified. On intertidal mudflats, inputs of detritus from saltmarshes, macroalgae or microphytobenthos are generally regarded as a major structuring force underpinning food-webs and there has been no consideration of trophic cul-de-sacs to date. A fully orthogonal three-factor experiment manipulating the density of the abundant gastropod, Pyrazus ebeninus, detritus and macrobenthic predators on a Sydney mudflat revealed large deleterious effects of the gastropod, irrespective of detrital loading or the presence of predators. Two months after experimental manipulation, the standing-stock of microphytobenthos in plots with high (44 per m2) densities of P. ebeninus was 20% less than in plots with low (4 per m2) densities. Increasing densities of P. ebeninus from low to high halved the abundance of macroinvertebrates and the average number of species. In contrast, the addition of detritus had differing effects on microphytobenthos (positively affected) and macroinvertebrates (negatively affected). Over the two-months of our experiment, no predatory mortality of P. ebeninus was observed and high densities of P. ebeninus decreased impacts of predators on macroinvertebrate abundances. Given that the dynamics of southeast Australian mudflats are driven more by disturbance than seasonality in predators and their interactions with prey, it is likely that Pyrazus would be similarly resistant to predation and have negative effects on benthic assemblages at other times of the year, outside of our study period. Thus, in reducing microphytobenthos and the abundance and species richness of macrofauna, high abundances of the detritivore P. ebeninus may severely limit the flow of energy up the food chain to commercially-important species. This study therefore suggests that trophic cul-de-sacs are not limited to the eutrophied pelagic systems in which they were first identified, but may exist in other systems as well. © OIKOS.
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