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Ecosystem Engineering by a Dominant Detritivore in a Diverse Tropical Stream

Alexander S. Flecker
Ecology
Vol. 77, No. 6 (Sep., 1996), pp. 1845-1854
DOI: 10.2307/2265788
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2265788
Page Count: 10
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Ecosystem Engineering by a Dominant Detritivore in a Diverse Tropical Stream
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Abstract

Prochilodus mariae (Characiformes: Prochilodontidae) is a detritivorous fish distributed throughout the Orinoco river basin of South America. Spectacular migrations of these fishes occur at the end of the rainy season into the Andean foothills. Prochilodus ingest large quantities of sediments and may thereby modify habitats in neotropical streams. The major objectives of this study were (1) to explore experimentally the importance of Prochilodus in structuring a tropical stream in the Venezuelan Andean piedmont, and (2) to determine whether there was sufficient ecological redundancy in a diverse and abundant assemblage of epibenthic fishes to compensate for the removal of Prochilodus. Community structure was compared among three experimental treatments: (1) Prochilodus exclusion, (2) Prochilodus enclosure, and (3) the natural fish assemblage. Selective exclusion of Prochilodus resulted in striking changes in community structure as measured by patterns of sediment accrual and the composition of algal and invertebrate assemblages. Highly significant increases in total dry mass and in ash-free dry mass of sediments accruing on stream-bottom substrates were observed almost immediately following the exclusion of Prochilodus. Moreover, the composition of algal and invertebrate assemblages was significantly modified by Prochilodus. Taxa such as diatoms were reduced in number when Prochilodus was present; in contrast, Prochilodus appeared to facilitate nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria. Total invertebrate densities were greatest in the Prochilodus removal treatment; however, a variety of responses to the experimental treatments was observed among different taxa analyzed individually, including density reductions, increases, and no measurable effects. This study suggests that the detritivore Prochilodus is a functionally dominant species in Andean foothill streams via sediment-processing activities. Moreover, it provides little evidence to support the notion that strongly interacting species are limited to simple systems with few food web components.

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