Extreme Climatic Events Alter Aquatic Food Webs. A Synthesis of Evidence from a Mesocosm Drought Experiment

Mark E. Ledger*, Lee E. Brown, François K. Edwards, Lawrence N. Hudson, Alexander M. Milner, Guy Woodward

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Extreme climatic events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity under climate change. Climate models predict shifts in rainfall patterns that will exacerbate drought, with potentially devastating effects on freshwater ecosystems. Experimental approaches are now advocated to explore the impact of extreme events on natural systems: here, we synthesise research conducted in a stream mesocosms experiment to simulate the effect of prolonged drought on the structure and functioning of complex food webs in a 2-year manipulation of flow regimes. Drought triggered the losses of species and trophic interactions, especially among rare predators, leading to the partial collapse of the food webs. Drying caused marked taxonomic and functional turnover in algal primary producers, from encrusting greens to diatoms, whereas the total number of algal taxa in the food webs remained unchanged. The recurrent drying disturbances generated transient macroinvertebrate communities dominated by relatively few, r-selected, species and compensatory dynamics sustained total macroinvertebrate densities. However, the standing biomass and secondary production of the food webs were more than halved by the droughts. Consumer-resource biomass flux was also strongly suppressed by disturbance, yet several network-level properties (such as connectance and interaction diversity) were conserved, driven by consumer-resource fidelity and a reconfiguration of fluxes within the webs, as production shifted down the size spectrum towards the smaller species. Our research demonstrates that flow extremes could have far-reaching consequences for the structure and functioning of complex freshwater communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)343-395
Number of pages53
JournalAdvances in Ecological Research
Publication statusPublished - 11 Sept 2013


  • Algae
  • Climate change
  • Disturbance
  • Drought
  • Experiment
  • Extreme climatic events
  • Food webs
  • Macroinvertebrates
  • Streams

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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