Free water fuels intraguild predation in a riparian food web

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In desert riparian ecosystems, rivers provide free water but access to that water diminishes with distance producing a steep gradient in the relative importance of water for growth and reproduction

In desert riparian ecosystems, rivers provide free water but access to that water diminishes with distance producing a steep gradient in the relative importance of water for growth and reproduction of riparian animals and hence, their biodiversity. Previous work suggests that water limited riparian predators eat more prey to meet their water demand where free water is not available. Here I explore the effect of water limitation on prey selection and per capita interaction strengths between a predatory spider ( Hogna antelucana) and two prey species occupying different trophic levels using a controlled field experiment conducted in the riparian forest of the San Pedro River, Cochise County, AZ. Lab measurements of water and energy content revealed that intermediate predators (smaller spiders in the genus Pardosa) had 100-fold higher energy: water ratios than an alternate prey species more basal in the food web (crickets in the genus Gryllus). Given this observation, I hypothesized that water-stressed predatory wolf spiders would select more water-laden crickets but switch to more energy rich Pardosa when water stress was experimentally eliminated. Additionally, I hypothesized that switching by quenched Hogna to Pardosa would reduce predation by Pardosa on Gryllus leading to increased abundance of the basal resource. Finally, I hypothesized that water mediated switching and release of basal prey would be stronger when male Hogna was the apex predator, because female Hogna have higher energetic costs of reproduction and hence, stronger energy limitation. Experimental water additions caused both sexes of Hogna to consume significantly higher numbers of Pardosa but this difference (between water and no-water treatments) did not vary significantly between male and female Hogna treatments. Similarly, strong negative interaction strengths between Hogna and Pardosa led to release of the basal prey species and positive interaction strengths of Hogna on Gryllus. Again strong positive, indirect effects of Hogna on Gryllus did not depend on the sex of the Hogna predator. However, water mediated indirect effects of Hogna (either sex) on Gryllus were the strongest for male Gryllus. These results suggest that water and energy co-dominate foraging decisions by predators and that in managing water-energy balance; predators can modify interaction pathways, sex-ratios of prey populations and trophic dynamics.