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PLoS One. 2017 Dec 14;12(12):e0189645. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0189645. eCollection 2017.

The structure of salt marsh soil mesofauna food webs - The prevalence of disturbance.

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J.F. Blumenbach Institute of Zoology and Anthropology, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany.
Centre of Biodiversity and Sustainable Land Use, University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany.


Mesofauna taxa fill key trophic positions in soil food webs, even in terrestrial-marine boundary habitats characterized by frequent natural disturbances. Salt marshes represent such boundary habitats, characterized by frequent inundations increasing from the terrestrial upper to the marine pioneer zone. Despite the high abundance of soil mesofauna in salt marshes and their important function by facilitating energy and carbon flows, the structure, trophic ecology and habitat-related diet shifts of mesofauna species in natural salt marsh habitats is virtually unknown. Therefore, we investigated the effects of natural disturbance (inundation frequency) on community structure, food web complexity and resource use of soil mesofauna using stable isotope analysis (15N, 13C) in three salt marsh zones. In this intertidal habitat, the pioneer zone is exposed to inundations twice a day, but lower and upper salt marshes are less frequently inundated based on shore height. The mesofauna comprised 86 species / taxa dominated by Collembola, Oribatida and Mesostigmata. Shifts in environmental disturbances influenced the structure of food webs, diversity and density declined strongly from the land to the sea pointing to the importance of increasing levels of inundation frequency. Accordingly, the reduced diversity and density was associated by a simplification of the food web in the pioneer zone as compared to the less inundated lower and upper salt marsh with a higher number of trophic levels. Strong variations in δ15N signatures demonstrated that mesofauna species are feeding at multiple trophic levels. Primary decomposers were low and most mesofauna species functioned as secondary decomposers or predators including second order predators or scavengers. The results document that major decomposer taxa, such as Collembola and Oribatida, are more diverse than previously assumed and predominantly dwell on autochthonous resources of the respective salt marsh zone. The results further suggest that Mesostigmata mostly adopt an intraguild predation lifestyle. The high trophic position of a large number of predators suggests that intraguild predation is of significant importance in salt marsh food webs. Presumably, intraguild predation contributes to stabilizing the salt marsh food web against disturbances.

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