Nutritional constraints in terrestrial and freshwater food webs


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.

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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.


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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.

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Correspondence to James J. Elser.

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