Adaptive genetic variation mediates bottom-up and top-down control in an aquatic ecosystem

Research in eco-evolutionary dynamics and community genetics has demonstrated that variation within a species can have strong impacts on associated communities and ecosystem processes. Yet, these studies have centred around individual focal species and at single trophic levels, ignoring the role of phenotypic variation in multiple taxa within an ecosystem. Given the ubiquitous nature of local adaptation, and thus intraspecific variation, we sought to understand how combinations of intraspecific variation in multiple species within an ecosystem impacts its ecology. Using two species that co-occur and demonstrate adaptation to their natal environments, black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) and three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), we investigated the effects of intraspecific phenotypic variation on both top-down and bottom-up forces using a large-scale aquatic mesocosm experiment. Black cottonwood genotypes exhibit genetic variation in their productivity and consequently their leaf litter subsidies to the aquatic system, which mediates the strength of top-down effects from stickleback on prey abundances. Abundances of four common invertebrate prey species and available phosphorous, the most critically limiting nutrient in freshwater systems, are dictated by the interaction between genetic variation in cottonwood productivity and stickleback morphology. These interactive effects fit with ecological theory on the relationship between productivity and top-down control and are comparable in strength to the effects of predator addition. Our results illustrate that intraspecific variation, which can evolve rapidly, is an under-appreciated driver of community structure and ecosystem function, demonstrating that a multi-trophic perspective is essential to understanding the role of evolution in structuring ecological patterns.

This paper was authored by Seth M. Rudman, Mariano A. Rodriguez-Cabal, Adrian Stier (me), Takuya Sato, Julian Heavyside, Rana W. El-Sabaawi, and Gregory M. Crutsinger. You can find a copy of the manuscript here, or contact me directly for a PDF.