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Ecology. 2008 Dec;89(12):3261-7.

An experimental disturbance alters fish size structure but not food chain length in streams.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, P.O. Box 208106, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8106, USA.


Streams experience frequent natural disturbance and are undergoing considerable anthropogenic disturbance due to dam construction and water diversion. Disturbance is known to impact community structure, but its effect on food chain length is still a matter of considerable debate. Theoretical models show that longer food chains are less resilient to disturbance, so food chain length is predicted to be shorter following a disturbance event. Here we experimentally test the effect of disturbance on food chain length in streams by diverting stream flow. We found that our experimental low-flow disturbance did not alter food chain length. We did see an effect on body-size structure in our food webs suggesting that food chain length may be an insensitive indicator of disturbance. We suggest that habitat heterogeneity and food web complexity buffer the effect of disturbance on food chain length. The theoretical predictions of disturbance on food chain length are only likely to be seen in homogeneous systems that closely approximate the linear food chains the models are based upon.

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