Stable isotopes indicate that zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) increase dependence of lake food webs on littoral energy sources

Margaret C. McEachran, Ryan S. Trapp, Kyle D. Zimmer, Brian R. Herwig, Catherine E. Hegedus, Claire E. Herzog, David F. Staples

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The influence of zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) on phytoplankton abundance is well known, but their community-level impact on energy flow is less clear. Reduced phytoplankton abundance could increase reliance of fish and aquatic invertebrates on alternative energy sources such as epiphyton and benthic algae. We assessed impacts of zebra mussels on energy flow by comparing food webs in two Minnesota, USA, lakes during summers of 2013 and 2014. Lake Carlos had a dense population of zebra mussels, while upstream Lake Ida was free of zebra mussels until this study began and maintained low densities during our study. We used baseline-corrected (BC) δ13C to test whether fish and littoral invertebrate primary and secondary consumers were more reliant on littoral carbon in Carlos compared to Ida. We also used BC δ15N to determine if trophic position of fish species differed between lakes. Lastly, we compared isotopic niche space by estimating standard ellipse areas for fish species in Carlos and Ida lakes, and tested whether the community-level range of trophic levels, reliance on littoral carbon and standard ellipse area differed between lakes. Results showed invertebrate secondary consumers had more enriched BC δ13C in Carlos than in Ida, indicating greater reliance on littoral energy. Mixing models indicated that 10 of 11 fish species were more reliant on littoral carbon in Carlos, with littoral carbon use in the 10 species 1.5-fold higher in Carlos. Isotopic niche analysis also showed increased littoral reliance in Carlos fish, as the same 10 fish species in Carlos had statistically distinct ellipses that were enriched in δ13C. Mixing models also indicated that seven of 11 fish species analysed had significantly higher trophic positions in Lake Carlos. In contrast, community-scale metrics for fish showed no difference between lakes in the range of trophic levels, range of reliance on littoral energy, or size of standardised ellipse area of isotopic niche space. This indicates that, despite most individual fish species increasing their reliance on littoral energy and shifting upwards in trophic position, the overall size of the community isotopic niche area remained similar between lakes. Our results indicate that zebra mussels have community-wide impacts on energy flow in lakes, with invertebrate predators and many species of fish increasing their reliance on littoral energy sources, and most species of fish shifting to higher trophic positions. A key question is whether increased water clarity associated with zebra mussels can increase littoral production sufficiently to compensate for higher demand. If not, it is plausible that invertebrate and fish production will decline due to increased intra- and inter-specific competition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-196
Number of pages14
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the University of St. Thomas. We thank the Sentinel Lakes Long-Term Monitoring Program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for supporting data and logistical support. We thank Jeff Reed, Eric Katzenmeyer, Bill McKibbin and Matt Hennen for assistance with fish sampling and tissue collection. We also thank Zachary George, Ryan Grow, Angela Tipp and Rachel Sweet for assistance with field sampling and laboratory work and Casey Schoenebeck, Pete Jacobson and two anonymous reviewers for helpful reviews that improved this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Copyright 2019 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • energy flow
  • niche space
  • trophic position
  • zebra mussel invasion


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