INVADING HERBIVORY: THE GOLDEN APPLE SNAIL ALTERS ECOSYSTEM FUNCTIONING IN ASIAN WETLANDS

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Abstract

We investigated the effects of an exotic snail, the golden apple snail (Pomacea canaliculata) on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in tropical wetland ecosystems. This large snail (up to 80-mm shell height) has invaded large parts of Southeast Asia during recent decades. A survey of natural wetlands in Thailand showed that high densities of the snail were associated with almost complete absence of aquatic plants, high nutrient concentrations, and high phytoplankton biomass, that is, a complete shift in both ecosystem state and function. A field experiment demonstrated that grazing by the snail can cause the loss of aquatic plants, a change toward dominance of planktonic algae, and thereby a shift toward turbid water. Estimates of biologically fixed nutrients released through snails grazing on aquatic plants revealed that phosphorus releases were sufficient to explain the recorded increase in phytoplankton biomass. Hence, our study demonstrates how an herbivore may trigger a shift from clear water and macrophyte dominance to a turbid state dominated by planktonic algae. This shift and the continuing aggressive invasion of this exotic species are detrimental to the integrity and functioning of wetland ecosystems, and to the services these provide in Southeast Asia.

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