1. The roles of nutrients, disturbance and predation in regulating consumer densities have long been of interest, but their indirect effects have rarely been quantified in wetland ecosystems. The Florida Everglades contains gradients of hydrological disturbance (marsh drying) and nutrient enrichment (phosphorus), often correlated with densities of macroinvertebrate infauna (macroinvertebrates inhabiting periphyton), small fish and larger invertebrates, such as snails, grass shrimp, insects and crayfish. However, most causal relationships have yet to be quantified.
2. We sampled periphyton (content and community structure) and consumer (small omnivores, carnivores and herbivores, and infaunal macroinvertebrates inhabiting periphyton) density at 28 sites spanning a range of hydrological and nutrient conditions and compared our data to seven a priori structural equation models.
3. The best model included bottom-up and top-down effects among trophic groups and supported top-down control of infauna by omnivores and predators that cascaded to periphyton biomass. The next best model included bottom-up paths only and allowed direct effects of periphyton on omnivore density. Both models suggested a positive relationship between small herbivores and small omnivores, indicating that predation was unable to limit herbivore numbers. Total effects of time following flooding were negative for all three consumer groups even when both preferred models suggested positive direct effects for some groups. Total effects of nutrient levels (phosphorus) were positive for consumers and generally larger than those of hydrological disturbance and were mediated by changes in periphyton content.
4. Our findings provide quantitative support for indirect effects of nutrient enrichment on consumers, and the importance of both algal community structure and periphyton biomass to Everglades food webs. Evidence for top-down control of infauna by omnivores was noted, though without substantially greater support than a competing bottom-up-only model.
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