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Keywords:

  • carabid beetles;
  • earthworms;
  • metal bioaccumulation;
  • molecular gut content analyses;
  • prey choice;
  • slugs

Abstract

Contamination pathways in complex food chains in soil ecosystems can be difficult to elucidate. Molecular analysis of predator gut content can, however, rapidly reveal previously unidentified trophic interactions between invertebrates and thereby uncover pathways of pollutant spread. Here, we measured concentrations of the toxic metals lead, cadmium and mercury in carabid beetle predators and their prey. Invertebrates were sampled at one control and four heavy metal-polluted sites to reveal the impact of diet composition and seasonal variation in prey availability on metal burden in carabids and metal transfer pathways through forest ecosystems. This is the first report, to our knowledge, of carabid diet composition based on PCR analysis of gut contents at the forest community level, rather than in cultivated fields. Extensive screening using group- and species-specific primers revealed that carabids ate primarily earthworms and slugs, as well as smaller numbers of woodlice and springtails. Metal concentrations in carabids correlated with seasonal changes in diet. Mercury accumulated in beetle predators more than in their slug prey. As earthworms, slugs and carabid beetles are the major prey of many birds and mammals, prey–predator transfer and associated toxicity are major risks at mercury-contaminated sites. Carabids may be useful bioindicators for assessing the impact of pollutants on soil ecosystems, as long as species and seasonal factors are taken into account.