Selective and context-dependent effects of chemical stress across trophic levels at the basis of marine food webs

Christoph Mensens, Frederik De Laender, Colin R. Janssen, Frances Camille Rivera, Koen Sabbe, Marleen De Troch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Downloads (Pure)


Human activities increasingly impact the functioning of marine food webs, but anthropogenic stressors are seldom included in ecological study designs. Diet quality, as distinct from just diet quantity, has moreover rarely been highlighted in food web studies in a stress context. We measured the effects of metal and pesticide stress (copper and atrazine) on the contribution of a benthic intertidal diatom community to two processes that are key to the functioning of intertidal systems: biomass (diet quantity) and lipid (diet quality) production. We then examined if stressors affected diatom functioning by selectively targeting the species contributing most to functioning (selective stress effects) or by changing the species’ functional contribution (context-dependent effects). Finally, we tested if stress-induced changes in diet quality altered the energy flow to the diatoms’ main grazers (harpacticoid copepods). Diatom diet quantity was reduced by metal stress but not by low pesticide levels due to the presence of an atrazine-tolerant, mixotrophic species. Selective effects of the pesticide reduced diatom diet quality by 60% and 75% at low and high pesticide levels respectively, by shifting diatom community structure from dominance by lipid-rich species toward dominance by an atrazine-tolerant, but lipid-poor, species. Context-dependent effects did not affect individual diatom lipid content at low levels of both stressors, but caused diatoms to lose 40% of their lipids at high copper stress. Stress-induced changes in diet quality predicted the energy flow from the diatoms to their copepod consumers, which lost half of their lipids when feeding on diatoms grown under low and high pesticide and high metal stress. Selective pesticide effects were a more important threat for trophic energy transfer than context-dependent effects of both stressors, with shifts in diatom community structure affecting the energy flow to their copepod grazers at stress levels where no changes in diatom lipid content were detected.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1342-1353
Number of pages12
JournalEcological applications
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 30 May 2018


  • atrazine
  • chemical stress
  • copepods
  • copper
  • diatoms
  • energy flow
  • fatty acids
  • marine food webs


Dive into the research topics of 'Selective and context-dependent effects of chemical stress across trophic levels at the basis of marine food webs'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this