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Back to the future: using palaeolimnology to infer long-term changes in shallow lake food webs


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


1. Shallow lakes are often cited as classic examples of systems that exhibit trophic cascades but, whilst they provide good model systems with which to test general ecological theory and to assess long-term community change, their food web linkages have rarely been resolved, so changes associated with the structure and dynamics of the ecological network as a whole are still poorly understood.

2. We sought to redress this, and to demonstrate the potential benefits of integrating palaeolimnological and contemporary data, by constructing highly resolved food webs and stable isotope derived measures of trophic interactions and niche space, for the extant communities of two shallow U.K. lakes from different positions along a gradient of eutrophication. The contemporary surface sediment cladoceran and submerged macrophyte assemblages in the less enriched site, Selbrigg Pond, matched the palaeolimnological assemblages of the more enriched site, Felbrigg Hall Lake, in its more pristine state during the 1920s. Thus, Selbrigg was a temporal analogue for Felbrigg, from which the consequences of long-term eutrophication on food web structure could be inferred. These data represent the first steps towards reconstructing not only past assemblages (i.e. nodes within a food web), but also past interactions (i.e. links within a food web): a significant departure from much of the previous research in palaeolimnology.

3. The more eutrophic food web had far fewer nodes and links, and thus a less reticulate network, than was the case for the more pristine system. In isotopic terms, there was vertical compression in δ15N range (NR) and subsequent increased overlap in isotopic niche space, indicating increased trophic redundancy within Felbrigg. This structural change, which was associated with a greater channelling of energy through a smaller number of nodes as alternative feeding pathways disappear, could lead to reduced dynamic stability, pushing the network towards further simplification. These changes reflected a general shift from a benthic-dominated towards a more pelagic system, as the plant-associated subweb eroded.

4. Although these data are among the first of their kind, the palaeo-analogue approach used here demonstrates the huge potential for applying food web theory to understand how and why these ecological networks change during eutrophication. Furthermore, because of the rich biological record preserved in their sediments, shallow lakes represent potentially important models for examining long-term intergenerational dynamics, thereby providing a means by which models and data can be integrated on meaningful timescales – a goal that has long proved elusive in food web ecology.