Disturbance-Mediated Effects of Fishes on Stream Ecosystem Processes: Concepts and Results from Highly Variable Prairie Streams
Keith B. Gido, Katie N. Bertrand, Justin N. Murdock, Walter K. Dodds, and Matt R. Whiles
Abstract.—Stream fishes can have strong top-down and bottom-up effects on ecosystem processes. However, the dynamic nature of streams constrains our ability to generalize these effects across systems with different disturbance regimes and species composition. To evaluate the role of fishes following disturbance, we used a series of field and mesocosm experiments that quantified the influence of grazers and water column minnows on primary productivity, periphyton structure, organic matter pools, and invertebrate communities following either scouring floods or drying of prairie streams. Results from individual experiments revealed highly significant effects of fishes, but the direction or magnitude of effects varied among experiments. Meta-analyses across experiments indicated that grazers consistently reduced the relative amount of fine benthic organic matter (FBOM) and chironomid abundance within 2 weeks after disturbances. However, effect sizes (log response ratios) were heterogeneous across experiments for algal biomass and algal filament lengths measured more than 4 weeks after a disturbance and potentially associated with system productivity and grazer densities. A similar analysis of 3–4 experiments using water column minnows only found a consistent trend of decreasing FBOM in fish treatments relative to controls when measured less than 2 weeks after disturbances and increase in gross primary productivity measured more than 4 weeks after disturbance. These results, along with those of others, were used to develop a conceptual framework for predicting the potential role of fishes in streams following disturbances (flood and drying). Both theoretical and empirical research shows that recovery of stream ecosystem processes will depend on the resilience of autotrophic and heterotrophic communities following disturbance. Fish effects may vary among functional groups but are generally predicted to be greatest during early stages of succession when algal and invertebrate communities are less complex and their biomass is low relative to fish biomass. Our analysis underscores the context dependency of consumer effects on ecosystem structure and function in nonequilibrium conditions and suggests that factors regulating fish densities and colonization of algal and invertebrate taxa need to be evaluated to predict the consequences of biodiversity loss in streams with variable or human-modified disturbance regimes.