Biological attributes of ecosystems often change nonlinearly as a function of anthropogenic and natural stress. Plant and animal communities may exhibit zones of change along a stressor gradient that are disproportionate relative to the incremental change in the stressor. The ability to predict such transitions is essential for effective management intervention because they may indicate irreversible changes in ecological processes. Despite the importance of recognizing transition zones along a stressor gradient, few, if any, investigators have examined these responses across multiple taxa, and no community threshold studies have been reported at large geographic scales. We surveyed benthic macroinvertebrate, fish, bird, diatom, and plant communities in coastal wetlands across a geospatially referenced gradient of anthropogenic stress in the Laurentian Great Lakes. We used Threshold Indicator Taxon Analysis (Baker and King 2010) to analyze each community's response to identify potential zones of disproportionate change in community structure along gradients of major watershed-scale stress: agriculture and urban/suburban development. Our results show surprising congruence in community thresholds among different taxonomic groups, particularly with respect to % developed land in the watershed. We also analyzed uncertainty associated with the community-specific thresholds to understand the ability of different assemblages to predict stress. The high and congruent sensitivity of assemblages to development demonstrates that watershed-scale stress has discernible effects on all biological communities, with increasing potential for ecosystem-scale functional changes. These findings have important implications for identifying reference-condition boundaries and for informing management and policy decisions, in particular, for selecting freshwater protected areas.
- land use