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Concept: Food chain


The energy requirement of species at each trophic level in an ecological pyramid is a function of the number of organisms and their average mass. Regarding human populations, although considerable attention is given to estimating the number of people, much less is given to estimating average mass, despite evidence that average body mass is increasing. We estimate global human biomass, its distribution by region and the proportion of biomass due to overweight and obesity.

Concepts: Mathematics, Biology, Ecology, Obesity, Mass, Trophic level, Food chain, Biomass


In theoretical ecology it is well known that the steady state expressions of the variables in a food chain crucially depend on the parity of the length of the chain. This poses a major problem for modeling real food webs because it is difficult to establish their true number of trophic levels, with sometimes rare predators and often rampant pathogens. Similar problems arise in the modeling of chronic viral infections. We review examples where seemingly general interpretations strongly depend on the number of levels in a model, and on its specific equations. This Perspective aims to open the discussion on this problem.

Concepts: Immune system, Mathematics, Ecology, Thermodynamics, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Charles Sutherland Elton


Large “hypercarnivorous” felids are recognized for their role as apex predators and hence as key elements in food webs and ecosystem functioning through competition and depredation. Here we show that cougars (Puma concolor), one of the largest and the most widely ranging apex felid predators with a strictly carnivorous diet, could also be effective secondary long distance seed dispersers, potentially establishing direct and non-herbivore mediated interactions with plant species at the bottom of the food web. Cougars accidently ingest and disseminate large amounts of seeds (31,678 seeds in 123 scats) of plant species initially consumed by their main prey, the Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata. The germination potential of seeds for the three plant species most abundantly found in cougar scats (19,570 seeds) was not significantly different from that observed in seeds obtained from dove gizzards, indicating that seed passage through cougar guts did not affect seed germination. Considering the estimated cougar density in our study area, dispersal of seeds by cougars could allow a mean, annual seed spread of ~5,000 seeds per km(2). Our results demonstrate that strictly carnivorous, felid predators could have broad and overlooked ecological functions related to ecosystem structuring and functioning.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Felidae, Food chain, Apex predator, Cougar, Felinae, Puma


The fear large carnivores inspire, independent of their direct killing of prey, may itself cause cascading effects down food webs potentially critical for conserving ecosystem function, particularly by affecting large herbivores and mesocarnivores. However, the evidence of this has been repeatedly challenged because it remains experimentally untested. Here we show that experimentally manipulating fear itself in free-living mesocarnivore (raccoon) populations using month-long playbacks of large carnivore vocalizations caused just such cascading effects, reducing mesocarnivore foraging to the benefit of the mesocarnivore’s prey, which in turn affected a competitor and prey of the mesocarnivore’s prey. We further report that by experimentally restoring the fear of large carnivores in our study system, where most large carnivores have been extirpated, we succeeded in reversing this mesocarnivore’s impacts. We suggest that our results reinforce the need to conserve large carnivores given the significant “ecosystem service” the fear of them provides.

Concepts: Causality, Predation, Ecology, Affect, Ecosystem, Food chain, Apex predator, Omnivore


Top predator loss is a major global problem, with a current trend in biodiversity loss towards high trophic levels that modifies most ecosystems worldwide. Most research in this area is focused on large-bodied predators, despite the high extinction risk of small-bodied freshwater fish that often act as apex consumers. Consequently, it remains unknown if intermittent streams are affected by the consequences of top-predators' extirpations. The aim of our research was to determine how this global problem affects intermittent streams and, in particular, if the loss of a small-bodied top predator (1) leads to a ‘mesopredator release’, affects primary consumers and changes whole community structures, and (2) triggers a cascade effect modifying the ecosystem function. To address these questions, we studied the top-down effects of a small endangered fish species, Barbus meridionalis (the Mediterranean barbel), conducting an enclosure/exclosure mesocosm experiment in an intermittent stream where B. meridionalis became locally extinct following a wildfire. We found that top predator absence led to ‘mesopredator release’, and also to ‘prey release’ despite intraguild predation, which contrasts with traditional food web theory. In addition, B. meridionalis extirpation changed whole macroinvertebrate community composition and increased total macroinvertebrate density. Regarding ecosystem function, periphyton primary production decreased in apex consumer absence. In this study, the apex consumer was functionally irreplaceable; its local extinction led to the loss of an important functional role that resulted in major changes to the ecosystem’s structure and function. This study evidences that intermittent streams can be affected by the consequences of apex consumers' extinctions, and that the loss of small-bodied top predators can lead to large ecosystem changes. We recommend the reintroduction of small-bodied apex consumers to systems where they have been extirpated, to restore ecosystem structure and function.

Concepts: Predation, Ecology, Ecosystem, Extinction, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Local extinction


This study compares the structure of eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) meadows and associated food webs in two eelgrass habitats in Denmark, differing in exposure, connection to the open sea, nutrient enrichment and water transparency. Meadow structure strongly reflected the environmental conditions in each habitat. The eutrophicated, protected site had higher biomass of filamentous algae, lower eelgrass biomass and shoot density, longer and narrower leaves, and higher above to below ground biomass ratio compared to the less nutrient-enriched and more exposed site. The faunal community composition and food web structure also differed markedly between sites with the eutrophicated, enclosed site having higher biomass of consumers and less complex food web. These relationships resulted in a column shaped biomass distribution of the consumers at the eutrophicated site whereas the less nutrient-rich site showed a pyramidal biomass distribution of consumers coupled with a more diverse consumer community. The differences in meadow and food web structure of the two seagrass habitats, suggest how physical setting may shape ecosystem response and resilience to anthropogenic pressure. We encourage larger, replicated studies to further disentangle the effects of different environmental variables on seagrass food web structure.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Coral reef, Ecosystem, Trophic level, Phytoplankton, Food chain, Consumer protection, Zostera


Mosquito control based on the use of Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti) is regarded as an environmental friendly method. However, Bti also affects non-target chironomid midges that are recognized as a central resource in wetland food webs. To evaluate the risk for different larval stages of Chironomus riparius we performed a test series of daily acute toxicity laboratory tests following OECD guideline 235 over the entire aquatic life cycle of 28 days. Our study is the first approach that performs an OECD approved test design with Bti and C. riparius as a standard organism in ecotoxicological testing. First-instar larvae of Chironomus riparius show an increased sensitivity towards Bti which is two orders of magnitude higher than for fourth instar larvae. Most EC50 values described in the literature are based on acute toxicity tests using third and fourth instar larvae. The risk for chironomids is underestimated when applying the criteria of the biocide regulation EU 528/2012 to our data and therefore the existing assessment approval is not protective. Possible impacts of Bti induced changes in chironomid abundances and community composition may additionally affect organisms at higher trophic levels, especially in spring when chironomid midges represent a key food source for reproducing vertebrates.

Concepts: Organism, Larva, Mosquito, Trophic level, Food chain, Bacillus thuringiensis, Chironomidae, Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis


The tremendous increases in production of plastic materials has led to an accumulation of plastic pollution worldwide. Many studies have addressed the physical effects of large-sized plastics on organisms, whereas few have focused on plastic nanoparticles, despite their distinct chemical, physical and mechanical properties. Hence our understanding of their effects on ecosystem function, behaviour and metabolism of organisms remains elusive. Here we demonstrate that plastic nanoparticles reduce survival of aquatic zooplankton and penetrate the blood-to-brain barrier in fish and cause behavioural disorders. Hence, for the first time, we uncover direct interactions between plastic nanoparticles and brain tissue, which is the likely mechanism behind the observed behavioural disorders in the top consumer. In a broader perspective, our findings demonstrate that plastic nanoparticles are transferred up through a food chain, enter the brain of the top consumer and affect its behaviour, thereby severely disrupting the function of natural ecosystems.

Concepts: Psychology, Brain, Organism, Human brain, Ecosystem, Plastic, Nature, Food chain


Apex predators play a key role in ecosystem stability across environments but their numbers in general are decreasing. By contrast, European catfish (Silurus glanis), the European freshwater apex predator, is on the increase. However, studies concerning apex predators in freshwaters are scarce in comparison to those in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The present study combines stomach content and stable isotope analyses with diet preferences of catfish to reveal its impact on the ecosystem since stocking. Catfish niche width is extremely wide in comparison to the typical model predator, Northern pike (Esox lucius). Catfish and pike have different individual dietary specialization that results in different functional roles in coupling or compartmentalizing distinct food webs. The role of both species in the ecosystem is irreplaceable due to multiple predator effects. The impact of catfish is apparent across the entire aquatic ecosystem, but herbivores are the most affected ecological group. The key feature of catfish, and probably a common feature of apex predators in general, is utilization of several dietary strategies by individuals within a population: long-term generalism or specialization and also short-term specialization. Catfish, similar to other large-bodied apex predators, have two typical features: enormous generalism and adaptability to new prey sources.

Concepts: Human, Predation, Ecosystem, Food chain, Dog, Apex predator, Aquatic ecosystem, Northern pike


Global warming and ocean acidification are forecast to exert significant impacts on marine ecosystems worldwide. However, most of these projections are based on ecological proxies or experiments on single species or simplified food webs. How energy fluxes are likely to change in marine food webs in response to future climates remains unclear, hampering forecasts of ecosystem functioning. Using a sophisticated mesocosm experiment, we model energy flows through a species-rich multilevel food web, with live habitats, natural abiotic variability, and the potential for intra- and intergenerational adaptation. We show experimentally that the combined stress of acidification and warming reduced energy flows from the first trophic level (primary producers and detritus) to the second (herbivores), and from the second to the third trophic level (carnivores). Warming in isolation also reduced the energy flow from herbivores to carnivores, the efficiency of energy transfer from primary producers and detritus to herbivores and detritivores, and the living biomass of detritivores, herbivores, and carnivores. Whilst warming and acidification jointly boosted primary producer biomass through an expansion of cyanobacteria, this biomass was converted to detritus rather than to biomass at higher trophic levels-i.e., production was constrained to the base of the food web. In contrast, ocean acidification affected the food web positively by enhancing trophic flow from detritus and primary producers to herbivores, and by increasing the biomass of carnivores. Our results show how future climate change can potentially weaken marine food webs through reduced energy flow to higher trophic levels and a shift towards a more detritus-based system, leading to food web simplification and altered producer-consumer dynamics, both of which have important implications for the structuring of benthic communities.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Ecology, Ecosystem, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator, Energy flow, Biomass