Benthic invaders control the phosphorus cycle in the world's largest freshwater ecosystem

Jiying Li, Vadym Ianaiev, Audrey Huff, John Zalusky, Ted Ozersky, Sergei Katsev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The productivity of aquatic ecosystems depends on the supply of limiting nutrients. The invasion of the Laurentian Great Lakes, the world's largest freshwater ecosystem, by dreissenid (zebra and quagga) mussels has dramatically altered the ecology of these lakes. A key open question is how dreissenids affect the cycling of phosphorus (P), the nutrient that limits productivity in the Great Lakes. We show that a single species, the quagga mussel, is now the primary regulator of P cycling in the lower four Great Lakes. By virtue of their enormous biomass, quagga mussels sequester large quantities of P in their tissues and dramatically intensify benthic P exchanges. Mass balance analysis reveals a previously unrecognized sensitivity of the Great Lakes ecosystem, where P availability is now regulated by the dynamics of mussel populations while the role of the external inputs of phosphorus is suppressed. Our results show that a single invasive species can have dramatic consequences for geochemical cycles even in the world's largest aquatic ecosystems. The ongoing spread of dreissenids across a multitude of lakes in North America and Europe is likely to affect carbon and nutrient cycling in these systems for many decades, with important implications for water quality management.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2008223118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 19 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. This work was supported by an NSF grant to T.O. and S.K. (OCE-1737368). We thank the captain and crew of the R/V Blue Heron for assistance in sampling. Comments by Dr. D.L. Strayer and three anonymous reviewers helped to substantially improve this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Dreissenid mussels
  • Invasive species
  • Phosphorus cycle
  • The Great Lakes

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.


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