Interactions between herbivorous fishes and limiting nutrients in a tropical stream ecosystem

Alexander S. Flecker, Brad W. Taylor, Emily S. Bernhardt, James M. Hood, William K. Cornwell, Shawn R. Cassatt, Michael J. Vanni, Naomi S. Altman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

118 Scopus citations


Ecologists have long been interested in understanding the strengths of consumer and resource limitation in influencing communities. Here we ask three questions concerning the relative importance of nutrients and grazing fishes to primary producers of a tropical Andean stream: (1) Are stream algae nutrient limited? (2) Are top-down and bottom-up forces of dual importance in limiting primary producers? (3) Do grazing fishes modulate the degree of resource limitation We obtained several lines of evidence suggesting that Andean stream algae are nitrogen limited. Addition of nitrogen in flow-through channels resulted in major increases in algal standing crop, whereas there were no measurable effects of phosphorus enrichment. Interestingly, the N2-fixing cyanobacteria Anabaena was one of the taxa that responded most dramatically to the addition of nitrogen. Moreover, nutrient uptake rates were significantly higher for inorganic nitrogen (NO3-N and NH4-N) compared to phosphorus (PO4-P). Nutrients and the presence of grazing fishes were manipulated simultaneously in a series of experiments by using nutrient-diffusing substrates in fish exclusions vs. open cages accessible to the natural fish assemblage. We observed strong effects of both nitrogen addition and consumers on algal standing crop, although consumer limitation was found to be of considerably greater magnitude than resource limitation in influencing algal biomass and composition. Finally, the degree of resource limitation varied as a consequence of grazing fishes. Experiments examining nutrient limitation in the presence and absence of fishes showed that the response to nitrogen enrichment was significantly greater on substrates accessible to natural fish assemblages compared to substrates where grazing fishes were excluded. These experiments demonstrate simultaneous and interactive effects of top-down and bottom-up factors in limiting primary producers of tropical Andean streams. Whereas other studies have shown that consumers affect nutrient supply in ecosystems, our findings Suggest that consumers can play an important role in influencing nutrient demand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1831-1844
Number of pages14
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 1 2002

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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