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Decadal-scale regional changes in Canadian freshwater zooplankton: the likely consequence of complex interactions among multiple anthropogenic stressors


Correspondence: Michelle E. Palmer, Environmental Monitoring and Reporting Branch, Ontario Ministry of the Environment, 125 Resources Road, Toronto, ON, Canada M9P 3V6. E-mail:


  1. Ecological integrity is increasingly threatened by multiple anthropogenic stressors, but the cumulative impact of stressors is poorly understood because they can interact in unexpected ways. Knowledge of these interactions and their associated impacts is needed to support the conservation of valued ecosystems. We used a large-scale, replicated field survey and multiple regression analysis to investigate the cumulative impacts of multiple physical, chemical and biological stressors on the crustacean zooplankton assemblages of 34 Canadian Shield lakes between 1980s and 2004–2005.
  2. Zooplankton total abundance, species richness, diversity and community structure, as well as the relative abundances of prominent taxonomic orders of zooplankton, changed at a regional scale. These changes occurred in response to changes in water quality and lake thermal regime, and invasion by an exotic predator. Interactions between stressors were common and represented an important determinant of zooplankton assemblage changes over time.
  3. We provide the first evidence that the individual and combined impacts of multiple stressors cause regional ecological change over decades. Our results demonstrate the prevalence of stressor interactions in natural environments and highlight the complexity of ecosystem responses to multiple stressors. Zooplankton changes recorded here may be widespread because climate change, acidification, development and the spread of invasive species are globally pervasive. These changes could have cascading impacts because zooplankton is an essential link in aquatic food webs. Our findings highlight the need to consider the interactive effect of stressors when assessing anthropogenic impacts and will inform management and conservation of ecosystems threatened by multiple stressors.