Research Article: Fatty Acid Composition at the Base of Aquatic Food Webs Is Influenced by Habitat Type and Watershed Land Use

Date Published: August 5, 2013

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): James H. Larson, William B. Richardson, Brent C. Knights, Lynn A. Bartsch, Michelle R. Bartsch, John C. Nelson, Jason A. Veldboom, Jon M. Vallazza, Diego Fontaneto.


Spatial variation in food resources strongly influences many aspects of aquatic consumer ecology. Although large-scale controls over spatial variation in many aspects of food resources are well known, others have received little study. Here we investigated variation in the fatty acid (FA) composition of seston and primary consumers within (i.e., among habitats) and among tributary systems of Lake Michigan, USA. FA composition of food is important because all metazoans require certain FAs for proper growth and development that cannot be produced de novo, including many polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Here we sampled three habitat types (river, rivermouth and nearshore zone) in 11 tributaries of Lake Michigan to assess the amount of FA in seston and primary consumers of seston. We hypothesize that among-system and among-habitat variation in FAs at the base of food webs would be related to algal production, which in turn is influenced by three land cover characteristics: 1) combined agriculture and urban lands (an indication of anthropogenic nutrient inputs that fuel algal production), 2) the proportion of surface waters (an indication of water residence times that allow algal producers to accumulate) and 3) the extent of riparian forested buffers (an indication of stream shading that reduces algal production). Of these three land cover characteristics, only intense land use appeared to strongly related to seston and consumer FA and this effect was only strong in rivermouth and nearshore lake sites. River seston and consumer FA composition was highly variable, but that variation does not appear to be driven by the watershed land cover characteristics investigated here. Whether the spatial variation in FA content at the base of these food webs significantly influences the production of economically important species higher in the food web should be a focus of future research.

Partial Text

Food quality has been shown to strongly influence the behavior, physiology, ecological interactions and evolution of aquatic consumers [1]–[3]. Some aspects of food quality appear to vary greatly among aquatic systems. For example, elemental composition of seston varies among streams in association with variation in watershed land use [4], and such variation influences consumer-driven processes [5], [6]. Less is known about the spatial controls over variation in many other aspects of food quality.