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Legacy effects of developmental stages determine the functional role of predators

Abstract

Predators are instrumental in structuring natural communities and ecosystem processes. The strong effects of predators are often attributed to their high trophic position in the food web. However, most predators have to grow and move up the food chain before reaching their final trophic position, and during this developmental process their traits, interactions and abundances change. Here, we show that this process of ‘moving up’ the food chain during development strongly determines the ecological role of a predator. By experimentally manipulating the succession of developmental stages of a predatory salamander in a seasonal aquatic ecosystem, we found that the effects of this apex predator on the ecosystem typically declined with age and size. Furthermore, younger, smaller predator stages had long-lasting effects on community structure and ecosystem function that determined the effects of subsequent older, larger stages. Consequently, the legacy effects of early stages largely shaped the impact of the predator on the ecosystem, which could not simply be inferred from its final trophic position. Our results highlight that accounting for all life stages when managing natural populations is crucial to preserve the functioning of natural ecosystems, especially given that early life stages of species are often particularly vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic disturbances.

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Figure 1: Treatments manipulating the succession of predator stages.
Figure 2: Differences in composition of macro-invertebrates, amphibians and zooplankton across three predator time periods, PI–PIII (see Fig. 1).
Figure 3: Change in mean (±1 s.e.m.) abundance of two types (benthic algae: periphyton; pelagic algae: phytoplankton) of primary producer (top panels), and NPP and R over time as a function of predator stage sequence history (bottom panels).
Figure 4: Effect of predator stage sequence on mean (±1 s.e.m.) decomposition rate k, final macro-invertebrate biomass and total amphibian biomass.

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Acknowledgements

We thank A. Roman, C. Dibble, M. Braun, E. Matson, J. Ohm and G. Ross for help with field work and sample processing, and C. Dibble, B. Toscano and N. Rasmussen for helpful comments on the manuscripts. This work was supported by NSF DEB-1256860 and NSF DEB-0841686 to V.H.W.R.

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Contributions

V.H.W.R. and B.G.V. conducted the experiment together. V.H.W.R. designed the experiment, analysed the data and wrote manuscript with significant input from B.G.V.

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Correspondence to Volker H. W. Rudolf.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Figure 1. (PDF 220 kb)

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Rudolf, V., Van Allen, B. Legacy effects of developmental stages determine the functional role of predators. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0038 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-016-0038

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