• Dragonfly;
  • encounter rate;
  • food web;
  • foraging mode;
  • invasion;
  • predation;
  • prey vulnerability;
  • size refugia;
  • species traits;
  • stream insects

Abstract 1. A new top predator, the dragonfly Cordulegaster boltonii, invaded Broadstone Stream (U.K.) in the mid-1990s. This provided a rare opportunity to assess the impact of a new, large carnivore on a community that has been studied since the 1970s and has one of the most detailed food webs yet published. The vulnerability of the resident species to the invader was assessed by integrating experiments, which examined discrete stages in the predation sequence, with empirical survey data.

2. Although the new predator preyed on nearly every macro-invertebrate in the food web, vulnerability varied considerably among prey species. Size-related handling constraints initially set the predator's diet, resulting in strong ontogenetic shifts, with progressively larger prey being added while small prey were retained in the diet, as predators grew. Within the size range of vulnerable prey, encounter rate limited the strength of predation, with mobile, epibenthic species being most at risk. Contrary to most studies of interactions between freshwater predators (usually stoneflies) and prey (usually mayflies), the new predator did not elicit avoidance responses from its prey, probably because it combined a highly cryptic feeding posture with an extremely rapid attack response.

3. The invader exploited its prey heavily in experiments, even at prey densities orders of magnitude above ambient. In the field, electivity reflected prey availability, as determined by mobility and microhabitat use, rather than prey abundance or active predator choice. Consequently, the invader had skewed effects within the prey assemblage, with sedentary, interstitial species being far less vulnerable than more active, epibenthic species, some of which, including a previous top predator, have declined markedly since the invasion.

4. By examining the predation sequence in detail and integrating surveys with experiments, species traits and system characteristics that determine the strength of trophic interactions may be identified, and their potential importance in natural food webs assessed. In so doing, greater insight can be gained into which species (and systems) will be most vulnerable to invading or exotic predators, an imperative in both pure and applied ecology.