Variations in climate, watershed characteristics and lake-internal processes often result in a large variability of food-web complexity in lake ecosystems. Some of the largest ranges in these environmental parameters can be found in lakes across the northern Great Plains as they are characterized by extreme gradients in respect to lake morphometry and water chemistry, with individual parameters often varying over several orders of magnitude. To evaluate the effects of environmental conditions on trophic complexity in prairie lake food-webs, we analyzed carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes of fishes, zooplankton and littoral macroinvertebrates in 20 lakes across southern Saskatchewan. Our two-year study identified very diverse patterns of trophic complexity, with was predominantly associated with among-lake differences. Small but significant temporal effects were also detected, which were predominantly associated with changes in productivity. The most influential parameters related to changes in trophic complexity among lakes were salinity, complexity of fish assemblage, and indicators of productivity (e.g. nutrients, Chl a). Generally, trophic diversity, number of trophic levels, and trophic redundancy were highest in productive freshwater lakes with diverse fish communities. Surprisingly, mesosaline lakes that were characterized by very low or no predation pressure from fishes were not colonized by invertebrate predators as it is often the case in boreal systems; instead, trophic complexity was further reduced. Together, prairie lake food-webs appear to be highly sensitive to changes in salinity and the loss of piscivorous fishes, making freshwater and mesosaline lakes most vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability. This is particularly important as global circulation models predict future climate warming to have disproportionate negative impacts on hydrologic conditions in this area.
Keywords: Food web, Great Plains, Saline lakes, Stable isotopes, Trophic complexity