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Biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and food webs in fresh waters: assembling the jigsaw puzzle


Dr G. Woodward, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, London, E1 4NS, U.K. E-mail:


1. Dramatic advances have been made recently in the study of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning (B-EF) relations and food web ecology. These fields are now starting to converge, and this fusion has the potential to improve our understanding of how environmental stressors modulate ecosystem processes and the supply of ‘goods and services’.

2. Food web structure and dynamics can exert particularly strong influences on B-EF relations in fresh waters, as consumer–resource interactions (e.g. trophic cascades) are often more important than horizontal interactions within trophic levels. For instance, many freshwater food webs are size structured, with large organisms tending to occupy the higher trophic levels and often exerting powerful effects on ecosystem processes. However, because they are also vulnerable to perturbations, non-random losses of these large taxa can alter both food web structure and ecosystem functioning profoundly.

3. Recently, the focus of food web research has shifted away from exploring patterns, towards developing an understanding of processes (e.g. quantifying fluxes of individuals, biomass, energy, nutrients) and how the two interact. Many of the best-characterized food webs are from fresh waters, and these ecosystems are now being used to address some of the shortcomings of earlier B-EF studies. I have identified several key gaps in our current knowledge and highlighted potentially fruitful avenues of future B-EF and food web research.

4. A major challenge for this newly emerging research is to place it within a unified theoretical framework. The application of metabolic theory and ecological stoichiometry may help to achieve this goal by considering biological systems within the constraints imposed upon them by physical and chemical laws.