Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Nutritional constraints in terrestrial and freshwater food webs

Abstract

Biological and environmental contrasts between aquatic and terrestrial systems have hindered analyses of community and ecosystem structure across Earth's diverse habitats. Ecological stoichiometry1,2 provides an integrative approach for such analyses, as all organisms are composed of the same major elements (C, N, P) whose balance affects production, nutrient cycling, and food-web dynamics3,4. Here we show both similarities and differences in the C:N:P ratios of primary producers (autotrophs) and invertebrate primary consumers (herbivores) across habitats. Terrestrial food webs are built on an extremely nutrient-poor autotroph base with C:P and C:N ratios higher than in lake particulate matter, although the N:P ratios are nearly identical. Terrestrial herbivores (insects) and their freshwater counterparts (zooplankton) are nutrient-rich and indistinguishable in C:N:P stoichiometry. In both lakes and terrestrial systems, herbivores should have low growth efficiencies (10–30%) when consuming autotrophs with typical carbon-to-nutrient ratios. These stoichiometric constraints on herbivore growth appear to be qualitatively similar and widespread in both environments.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

$32.00

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Frequency histograms summarizing C:N:P stoichiometry in autotrophs at the base of terrestrial and freshwater food webs.
Figure 2: Frequency histograms summarizing C:N:P stoichiometry of invertebrate herbivores in terrestrial and freshwater habitats.
Figure 3: Decline in gross growth efficiency (GGEC) for typical terrestrial and freshwater grazers with increasing food carbon-to-nutrient ratio.

References

  1. Reiners, W. A. Complementary models for ecosystems. Am. Nat. 127, 59–73 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Elser, J. J., Dobberfuhl, D., MacKay, N. A. & Schampel, J. H. Organism size, life history, and N:P stoichiometry: towards a unified view of cellular and ecosystem processes. BioScience 46, 674–684 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Sterner, R. W. & Hessen, D. O. Algal nutrient limitation and the nutrition of aquatic herbivores. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 25, 1–29 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Elser, J. J. & Urabe, J. The stoichiometry of consumer-driven nutrient cycling: theory, observations, and consequences. Ecology 80, 735–751 ( 1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Elton, C. Animal Ecology (Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1927).

    Google Scholar 

  6. Chapin, F. S. et al. Biotic control over the functioning of ecosystems. Science 277, 500–504 ( 1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Leibold, M. A. Resource edibility and the effects of predators and productivity on the outcome of trophic interactions. Am. Nat. 6, 922 –949 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Tilman, D. et al. The influence of functional diversity and composition on ecosystem processes. Science 277, 1300– 1302 (1997).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. McCauley, E., Nisbet, R. M., Murdoch, W. W., DeRoos, A. M. & Gurney, W. S. C. Large amplitude cycles of Daphnia and its algal prey in enriched environments. Nature 402, 653–656 ( 1999).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Schlesinger, W. H. Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change (Academic, San Diego, 1997).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Elser, J. J., Marzolf, E. R. & Goldman, C. R. Phosphorus and nitrogen limitation of phytoplankton growth in the freshwaters of North America: a review and critique of experimental enrichments. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 47, 1468–1477 (1990).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Verhoeven, J. T. A., Koerselman, W. & Meuleman, A. F. M. Nitrogen- or phosphorus-limited growth in herbaceous, wet vegetation: relations with atmospheric inputs and management regimes. Trends Ecol. Evol. 11, 494– 497 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Main, T., Dobberfuhl, D. R. & Elser, J. J. N:P stoichiometry and ontogeny in crustacean zooplankton: a test of the growth rate hypothesis. Limnol. Oceanogr. 42, 1474–1478 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Futuyma, D. J. & Gould, F. Associations of plants and insects in a deciduous forest. Ecol. Monogr. 49, 33–50 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Strong, D. R., Lawton, J. H. & Southwood, R. Insects on Plants: Community Patterns and Mechanisms (Blackwell Scientific, London, 1984).

    Google Scholar 

  16. White, T. C. R. The Inadequate Environment: Nitrogen and the Abundance of Animals (Springer, New York, 1993).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Andersen, T. Pelagic Nutrient Cycles: Herbivores as Sources and Sinks (Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg & New York, 1997).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. Sterner, R. W. Modelling interactions between food quality and quantity in homeostatic consumers. Freshwat. Biol. 38, 473– 482 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Slansky, F. & Feeny, P. Stabilization of the rate of nitrogen accumulation by larvae of the cabbage butterfly on wild and cultivated plants. Ecol. Monogr. 47, 209– 228 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. DeMott, W. R., Gulati, R. D. & Siewertsen, K. Effects of phosphorus-deficient diets on the carbon and phosphorus balance of Daphnia magna. Limnol. Oceanogr. 43, 1147–1161 ( 1998).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Cyr, H. & Pace, M. L. Magnitude and patterns of herbivory in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Nature 361, 148–150 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Strong, D. R. Are trophic cascades all wet? Differentiation and donor-control in speciose ecosystems. Ecology 73, 747– 754 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Cebrian, J. Patterns in the fate of production in plant communities. Am. Nat. 154, 449–468 ( 1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Elser, J. J., Chrzanowski, T. H., Sterner, R. W., Schampel, J. H. & Foster, D. K. Elemental ratios and the uptake and release of nutrients by phytoplankton and bacteria in three lakes of the Canadian Shield. Microb. Ecol. 29, 145–162 (1995).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Butler, N. M., Suttle, C. A. & Neill, W. E. Discrimination by freshwater zooplankton between single algal cells differing in nutritional status. Oecologia 78, 368–372 (1989).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper is a contribution from the Ecological Stoichiometry working group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a centre funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of California, and the State of California. We thank the staff of NCEAS for logistical support. We also thank S. Nielsen for providing an electronic summary of his extensive data set on autotroph elemental composition. D. Strong, I. Loladze and C. Mitter provided useful comments.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to James J. Elser.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Elser, J., Fagan, W., Denno, R. et al. Nutritional constraints in terrestrial and freshwater food webs. Nature 408, 578–580 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1038/35046058

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/35046058

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing