Plant genotype influences aquatic-terrestrial ecosystem linkages through timing and composition of insect emergence

Published by Ecoss on

Terrestrial leaf litter provides aquatic insects with an energy source and habitat structure, and species differences in litter can influence aquatic insect emergence. Emerging insects also provide energy to riparian predators. We hypothesized that plant genetics would influence the composition and timing of emerging insect communities among individual genotypes of Populus angustifolia varying in litter traits. We also compared the composition and timing of emerging insect communities on litter from mixed genotypes of three cross types of a hybridizing cottonwood complex: P. angustifolia, P. fremontii, and their F1 hybrids. Using litter harvested from an experimental common garden, we measured emerging insect community composition, abundance, and production for 12 weeks in large litter packs affixed with emergence traps. Five major findings emerged. (1) In support of the genetic similarity hypothesis, we found that, among P. angustifolia tree genotypes, litter from more closely related genotypes had more similar litter thickness, nitrogen concentrations, decomposition rates, and emerging insect communities. (2) Genetic similarity was not correlated with other litter traits, although the litter fungal community was a strong predictor of emerging insect communities. (3) Litter decomposition rate, which was the strongest predictor of emerging aquatic insect communities, was influenced by litter thickness, litter N, and the litter fungal community. (4) In contrast to strong community composition differences among P. angustifolia genotypes, differences in community composition between P. fremontii and P. angustifolia were only marginally significant, and communities on F1 hybrids were indistinguishable from P. angustifolia despitegenetic and litter trait differences. (5) Mixed litter packs muted the genetic effects observed in litter packs consisting of single genotypes. These results demonstrate that the genetic structure of riparian forests can affect the composition and timing of aquatic insect emergence. Because many riparian trees are clonal, including P. angustifolia, large clone size is likely to result in patches of genetically structured leaf litter that may influence the timing and composition of insect emergence within watersheds. Riparian restoration efforts incorporating different tree genotypes could also influence the biodiversity of emerging aquatic insects. Our work illustrates the importance of plant genes for community and ecosystem processes in riparian corridors.