Food web responses to environmental change are not straightforward to understand as they occur through an intricate arrangement of direct and indirect effects. Although previous investigations have advanced knowledge on freshwater food web structure, we must better understand the intricate relationships between the main drivers of environmental change and trophic networks in lentic and lotic ecosystems.
We compiled multicontinental data to investigate how climate and land use change are related to the structure of freshwater food webs, considering the inherent differences in lentic and lotic ecosystems. We analyzed the direct and indirect relationships between land use intensity, and temperature and precipitation temporal trends, and food webs using multi-group structural equation modeling.
The strength and direction of the relationships between climate, land use, and food webs varied considerably among lentic and lotic ecosystems, but most indicated indirect effects through the number of links in the network. While network connectance both increased and decreased with land use and climate change, the number of trophic levels decreased with land use intensity and maximum temperature and increased with increasing precipitation. Omnivory increased with land use intensity in both ecosystems but was negatively related to changes on maximum temperature in lake food webs.
Even though food webs are expected to become more connected in face of disturbances, and our work supported this regarding local warming, the negative relationships between network connectance and land use intensification suggests that food webs become more specialized at disturbed sites. On the other hand, reduction in the number of trophic levels indicates the loss of top consumers in face of warming and increasing land use intensity.
The response of food webs in both lentic and lotic ecosystems to climate and land use change occurred mostly through changes in species interactions. Our results indicate that the intensification of land use makes food webs more specialized, with less trophic levels. Also, inherent aspects of freshwater ecosystems seemed to play a major role in the way food webs respond to disturbance and must be considered to fully understand and predict the effects of global changes on freshwater biodiversity.