Effects of abiotic factors on predator-prey interactions in freshwater fish communities

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Hedges, Kevin James
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Because differences often exist between species in their tolerances to environmental conditions, locations characterized by extreme parameter values (i.e., high temperature, low DO, high turbidity) may provide refuges from predation or competition by altering the outcome of inter-species interactions. This thesis examined the effects and relative importance of water temperature, dissolved oxygen (DO) and turbidity on habitat use by fish species and resulting changes in community composition. The effects of abiotic factors on predator-prey interactions were tested using field surveys, laboratory experiments, field experiments and computer modeling. Field surveys were conducted in Blind Channel, Delta Marsh, Manitoba, and on Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, to determine if small bodied forage species preferentially used high temperature, low DO or high turbidity habitats and whether predator species avoided these locations. Prey species were more abundant in these extreme locations at both small (Blind Channel) and large (Lake Winnipeg) spatial scales, but predator avoidance was only documented in Blind Channel. The tolerances of fish species to moderate hypoxia (< 3 mg/L DO) was tested in the laboratory to verify that differences did exist among species and that the observed species distributions were not solely the effect of temperature. To quantify the potential for moderately hypoxic locations to provide a refuge from predation for small fish, a field manipulation was conducted in Blind Channel; hypoxic habitats were created without altering water temperature, decoupling the natural covariation between these two factors that occurs in aquatic systems. The abundance of small forage fish was higher in the hypoxic locations compared to controls and while predators still visited the hypoxic habitats, their mean visit duration was reduced from around 300 min to less than 1 min. An individual based computer model was used to test and illustrate current understanding of the relative importance of temperature, DO and turbidity on predator habitat selection decisions and fish community composition. The model showed that DO had a stronger effect on community composition than temperature, and that reduced foraging success from high turbidity was able to overpower the other two factors. Hypoxia affects habitat selection decisions by fish species and can provide refuges from predation and competition, helping maintain higher species diversity. Water temperature appears to have a weaker effect on fish distributions than DO while turbidity primarily affects visual predators, though the strength of turbidity effects depends on the magnitude and duration of individual events.
community ecology, predator-prey interactions, hypoxia, environmental effects