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No AccessPerspectives

Winterkill cascade: indirect effects of a natural disturbance on littoral macroinvertebrates in boreal lakes

Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E9

Natural disturbances can provide insights into mechanisms organizing communities by perturbing systems at larger scales and more realistic intensities than can often be achieved otherwise. We took advantage of 2 winterkills of fish, a common disturbance of small lakes on the Boreal Plains of northern Alberta (Canada), to assess the effects of sudden, large reductions in fish densities on littoral macroinvertebrate assemblages. Winterkill nearly eliminated the native fish assemblages (dominated by northern pike, Esox lucius, and yellow perch, Perca flavescens) in the 2 lakes, whereas 2 nearby lakes with similar fish assemblages were unaffected and served as references. Environmental characteristics of both winterkill and reference lakes changed little from year to year. Uni- and multivariate analyses of macroinvertebrates revealed some inherent among-lake differences; however, strong and parallel changes in the invertebrate assemblages occurred only in the 2 winterkill lakes, congruent with the winterkills of fish. Decreases in fish biomass were generally accompanied by increases in macroinvertebrate density, particularly among taxa (e.g., amphipods, leeches, chironomids) commonly eaten by the native fish. As a result, analyses of matrix concordance and variance partitioning showed variation in macroinvertebrate assemblages was related to both temporal changes in fish density and environmental differences among lakes but that the fish and environmental matrices were not strongly concordant. Our serendipitous study of community-level disturbance revealed that winterkill-induced reductions of fish densities can have strong, cascading effects on littoral macroinvertebrates in these boreal lakes.