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Concept: Trophic level


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


All living organisms are linked through trophic relationships with resources and consumers, the balance of which determines overall ecosystem stability and functioning. Ecological research has identified a multitude of mechanisms that contribute to this balance, but ecologists are now challenged with predicting responses to global environmental changes. Despite a wealth of studies highlighting likely outcomes for specific mechanisms and subsets of a system (e.g., plants, plant-herbivore or predator-prey interactions), studies comparing overall effects of changes at multiple trophic levels are rare. We used a combination of experiments in a grassland system to test how biomass at the plant, herbivore and natural enemy (parasitoid) levels responds to the interactive effects of two key global change drivers: warming and nitrogen deposition. We found that higher temperatures and elevated nitrogen generated a multitrophic community that was increasingly dominated by herbivores. Moreover, we found synergistic effects of the drivers on biomass, which differed across trophic levels. Both absolute and relative biomass of herbivores increased disproportionately to that of plants and, in particular, parasitoids, which did not show any significant response to the treatments. Reduced parasitism rates mirrored the profound biomass changes in the system. These findings carry important implications for the response of biota to environmental changes; reduced top-down regulation is likely to coincide with an increase in herbivory, which in turn is likely to cascade to other fundamental ecosystem processes. Our findings also provide multitrophic data to support the general concern of increasing herbivore pest outbreaks in a warmer world.

Concepts: Organism, Life, Plant, Predation, Ecology, Animal, Herbivore, Trophic level


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


Trade-offs among species' ecological interactions is a pervasive explanation for species coexistence. The traits associated with trade-offs are typically measured to mechanistically explain species coexistence at a single spatial scale. However, species potentially interact at multiple scales and this may be reflected in the traits among coexisting species. I quantified species' ecological traits associated with the trade-offs expected at both local (competitive ability and predator tolerance) and regional (competitive ability and colonization rate) community scales. The most common species (four protozoa and a rotifer) from the middle trophic level of a pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) inquiline community were used to link species traits to previously observed patterns of species diversity and abundance. Traits associated with trade-offs (competitive ability, predator tolerance, and colonization rate) and other ecological traits (size, growth rate, and carrying capacity) were measured for each of the focal species. Traits were correlated with one another with a negative relationship indicative of a trade-off. Protozoan and rotifer species exhibited a negative relationship between competitive ability and predator tolerance, indicative of coexistence at the local community scale. There was no relationship between competitive ability and colonization rate. Size, growth rate, and carrying capacity were correlated with each other and the trade-off traits: Size was related to both competitive ability and predator tolerance, but growth rate and carrying capacity were correlated with predator tolerance. When partial correlations were conducted controlling for size, growth rate and carrying capacity, the trade-offs largely disappeared. These results imply that body size is the trait that provides the basis for ecological interactions and trade-offs. Altogether, this study showed that the examination of species' traits in the context of coexistence at different scales can contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms underlying community structure.

Concepts: Biodiversity, Ecology, Pitcher plant, Trophic level, Trophic dynamics, Carrying capacity, Sarracenia purpurea, Sarracenia


Species are linked to each other by a myriad of positive and negative interactions. This complex spectrum of interactions constitutes a network of links that mediates ecological communities' response to perturbations, such as exploitation and climate change. In the last decades, there have been great advances in the study of intricate ecological networks. We have, nonetheless, lacked both the data and the tools to more rigorously understand the patterning of multiple interaction types between species (i.e., “multiplex networks”), as well as their consequences for community dynamics. Using network statistical modeling applied to a comprehensive ecological network, which includes trophic and diverse non-trophic links, we provide a first glimpse at what the full “entangled bank” of species looks like. The community exhibits clear multidimensional structure, which is taxonomically coherent and broadly predictable from species traits. Moreover, dynamic simulations suggest that this non-random patterning of how diverse non-trophic interactions map onto the food web could allow for higher species persistence and higher total biomass than expected by chance and tends to promote a higher robustness to extinctions.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Evolution, Biology, Ecology, Structure, Trophic level, Biomass, Biogeography


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


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


Approximately 5.25 trillion plastic pieces are floating at the sea surface. The impact of plastic pollution on the lowest trophic levels of the food web, however, remains unknown. Here we show that plastics release dissolved organic carbon (DOC) into the ambient seawater stimulating the activity of heterotrophic microbes. Our estimates indicate that globally up to 23,600 metric tons of DOC are leaching from marine plastics annually. About 60% of it is available to microbial utilization in less than 5 days. If exposed to solar radiation, however, this DOC becomes less labile. Thus, plastic pollution of marine surface waters likely alters the composition and activity of the base of the marine food webs. It is predicted that plastic waste entering the ocean will increase by a factor of ten within the next decade, resulting in an increase in plastic-derived DOC that might have unaccounted consequences for marine microbes and for the ocean system.

Concepts: Oxygen, Water, Carbon, Plastic, Ocean, Trophic level, Food chain, Apex predator