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After disturbance, recovery dynamics of local populations depend on arrival rates of immigrants and local growth conditions. We studied the effects of herbivore immigration rates and nutrient enrichment on the dynamics of grazing insect larvae, benthic microalgae, and filamentous macroalgae recovering from low local densities in an open stream system. The two types of algae approximate a trade-off between capabilities for growing at low resource levels and resisting herbivory. Many microalgae achieve relatively high growth rates at low nutrient levels but are vulnerable to grazers, whereas many macroalgae require high nutrient levels for growth but become increasingly defended with filament growth. We hypothesized that macroalgae should benefit more strongly than microalgae from increasing nutrient levels and decreasing grazer immigration rates, because both conditions increase macroalgal chances to grow into a size refuge from herbivory.

We created a gradient of nutrient concentrations and manipulated drift immigration rates of macroinvertebrates. Macro- and microalgal biomass and the relative contribution of macroalgae to total algal biomass increased with increasing nutrient enrichment and decreased with increasing grazer immigration. Grazer densities responded positively to nutrient enrichment. The densities of large baetids responded positively to higher immigration rates of large baetids, whereas small baetids and chironomid larvae showed the opposite response. Per capita emigration of small baetids decreased with increasing algal biomass. The data suggest that large baetids negatively affected algal biomass and that small baetid and chironomid densities tracked resource levels set by nutrient enrichment and large baetids. Our experiments highlight the prospects of integrating disturbance with nutrient supply, immigration rates and local trophic interactions (determining recovery trajectories) into conceptual models of open system dynamics. We suggest that recovery trajectories towards micro- or macroalgal dominated states may depend on the spatial scale of disturbance relative to the movement ranges of migrating grazers and to nutrient supply.