Determining the factors that control food web interactions is a key issue in ecology1,2. The empirical relationship between nutrient loading (total phosphorus) and phytoplankton standing stock (chlorophyll a) in lakes was described about 30 years ago3 and is central for managing surface water quality. The efficiency with which biomass and energy are transferred through the food web and sustain the production of higher trophic levels (such as fish) declines with nutrient loading and system productivity4,5, but the underlying mechanisms are poorly understood. Here we show that in seston (fine particles in water) during summer, specific ω3-polyunsaturated fatty acids (ω3-PUFAs), which are important for zooplankton6,7,8,9,10, are significantly correlated to the trophic status of the lake. The ω3-PUFAs octadecatetraenoic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid, but not α-linolenic acid, decrease on a double-logarithmic scale with increasing total phosphorus. By combining the empirical relationship between EPA-to-carbon content and total phosphorus with functional models relating EPA-to-carbon content to the growth and egg production of daphnids8, we predict secondary production for this key consumer. Thus, the decreasing efficiency in energy transfer with increasing lake productivity can be explained by differences in ω3-PUFA-associated food quality at the plant–animal interface.
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We thank A. Liston for assistance; U. Müller, D. Hunter and A. Makulla for phytoplankton counts; and G. Malyj for editing the manuscript. This study was funded by a US National Science Foundation grant to M.T.B., C.R.G. and D.C.M.-N.
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
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