Effects of temperature and terrestrial carbon on fish growth and pelagic food web efficiency

University dissertation from Umeå : Umeå Universitet

Abstract: Both temperature and terrestrial dissolved organic carbon (TDOC) have strong impacts on aquatic food web dynamics and production. Temperature affects vital rates of all organisms and terrestrial carbon has been shown to alter the dynamics of phytoplankton and bacterial production and affect the trophic structure of planktonic food webs. As climate change predictions for the Baltic Sea suggests future increases in both terrestrial carbon run-off and increases in temperature, the aim of thesis was to adopt a system-ecological approach and study effects of these abiotic variables, not only on interactions within planktonic food webs, but also on the growth and consumption rates of one of the most common zooplanktivorous fish in the Baltic Sea, the three-spined stickleback Gasterosteus aculeatus. Results showed that three-spined sticklebacks display a high degree of resilience against increasing temperatures, as both growth rates as well as consumption rates on zooplankton were high at temperatures well over 20 °C. Furthermore, it was shown that the minimal resource densities required to sustain individual and population growth, actually decreased with increasing temperatures, implying that sticklebacks around their optimum temperature for growth at 21 °C will actually have an increased scope for growth. As stickleback population densities have increased over the last decade in the Baltic Sea and are now suggested to out-compete other coastal fish species for shared zooplankton resources, the results presented in this thesis suggest that increased water temperatures would only serve to increase sticklebacks competitive advantage. As the structuring role of this small zooplanktivore on pelagic communities might be considerable, further studies investigating competitive interactions as well as patterns of population abundances are definitely warranted. TDOC was overall shown to stimulate bacterial production and the microbial food web. Because of the longer trophic pathways required to transport carbon from bacterial production to higher trophic levels, the addition of TDOC always reduced food web transfer efficiency. However, it became apparent that the full effect of TDOC additions on pelagic food webs was complex and depended heavily not only on the existing trophic structure to which the carbon was introduced, but also on ambient temperature levels. When three-spined sticklebacks were part of food webs with significant TDOC inputs, the presence of fish, indirectly, through predator release of lower trophic levels, amplified the magnitude of the effects of carbon addition on bacterial production, turning the base of the system significantly more heterotrophic, which ultimately, impacted negatively on their own production. However, when a pelagic food web containing sticklebacks was simultaneously subjected to realistic increases in temperature and TDOC concentrations, food web efficiency and fish production increased compared to present day conditions. These results were explained by a temperature dependent increased production potential of zooplankton, sustained by an increased production of heterotropic microzooplankton via TDOC additions, which lead to higher fish production. Although the increased number of trophic linkages in heterotrophic food webs should have reduced energy transfer efficiency, these negative effects seem here to have been overridden by the positive increases in zooplankton production as a result of increased temperature. These results show that heterotrophic carbon transfer can be a viable pathway to top-consumers, but also indicates that in order to understand the full effects of climate change on trophic dynamics and fish production, abiotic variables cannot be studied in isolation.