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Predator-induced reduction of freshwater carbon dioxide emissions


Predators can influence the exchange of carbon dioxide between ecosystems and the atmosphere by altering ecosystem processes such as decomposition and primary production, according to food web theory1,2. Empirical knowledge of such an effect in freshwater systems is limited, but it has been suggested that predators in odd-numbered food chains suppress freshwater carbon dioxide emissions, and predators in even-numbered food chains enhance emissions2,3. Here, we report experiments in three-tier food chains in experimental ponds, streams and bromeliads in Canada and Costa Rica in the presence or absence of fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and invertebrate (Hesperoperla pacifica and Mecistogaster modesta) predators. We monitored carbon dioxide fluxes along with prey and primary producer biomass. We found substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the presence of predators in all systems, despite differences in predator type, hydrology, climatic region, ecological zone and level of in situ primary production. We also observed lower amounts of prey biomass and higher amounts of algal and detrital biomass in the presence of predators. We conclude that predators have the potential to markedly influence carbon dioxide dynamics in freshwater systems.

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Figure 1: Predicted effects (depicted by + or −) of predators on community composition, ecosystem processes and carbon flux to the atmosphere.
Figure 2: Demonstrated effect sizes of predators on prey, primary producers and CO2 dynamics of ponds, streams and bromeliads.
Figure 3: Effects of predator manipulations on mean (±95% confidence intervals) CO2 flux of ponds, streams and bromeliads.
Figure 4: Comparison of trophic cascade strength from the present study with natural ecosystems.


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We thank A. Barber, A. J. Klemmer and P. L. Thompson for assistance in constructing and sampling mesocosms. This research was financially supported by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (Canada) grants to D.S.S., J.B.S., J.S.R. and P.K. and a New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science & Technology Fellowship (UBX0901) to H.S.G.

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All authors contributed to the design of the study and to the writing of the manuscript. Data were collected in the field by T.B.A., E.H., H.S.G. and P.K.

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Correspondence to Trisha B. Atwood.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Atwood, T., Hammill, E., Greig, H. et al. Predator-induced reduction of freshwater carbon dioxide emissions. Nature Geosci 6, 191–194 (2013).

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