Omnivory and opportunism characterize food webs in a large dry-tropics river system
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We analyzed basal sources, trophic levels, and connectance in dry-season food webs on 4 rivers in the upper Burdekin catchment in the dry tropics of northeastern Australia. The region is characterized by episodic summer rainfall, and most of the annual river flow occurs in a short period. In the dry season, rivers typically contract into a series of water holes of varying permanence and hydrologic connectivity. We used stable-isotope and stomach-content analyses to identify trophic levels of macroinvertebrates and fish, and we used a mixing model (SIAR) to identify foodweb basal sources at each site. We found substantial variability among sites in basal-source contributions, trophic position of individual taxa, and foodweb structure, and sites from the same river often were as different as sites from different rivers. Important basal sources at different sites included allochthonous tree litter, autochthonous algae and macrophytes, and Fe-fixing bacteria. Many relationships between consumers and basal sources were not resolved in the mixing model, mainly because of extensive omnivory or isotopic overlap among sources. Nevertheless, our results show high variability of dry-tropics river communities that extends beyond previously described macroinvertebrate assemblages to the broader food web. However, the main components of the upper trophic levels were similar across sites, such that different lower trophic levels supported similar assemblages of top consumers. These tropical rivers were defined by omnivory and ecological opportunism, which may be adaptations to seasonal hydrological variability.
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