FCE researchers have found that productivity in the Everglades, and other limestone-based Carbbean wetlands, is dominated by extraordinarily productive algal mats, despite extreme nutrient limitation. This phenomenon has been called a “productivity paradox” (Gaiser et al. 2011). This production would be expected to support a large biomass of aquatic primary consumers but does not (Turner et al. 1999). Instead, algal mats are highly inedible and aquatic consumers rely on less energetically efficient detrital pathways (Sargeant et al. 2010). Top predators (i.e., wading birds, large fish, alligators) are supported by the seasonal concentration of these prey animals during the dry season. Long-term research at FCE has been necessary to determine how interannual variation in wet and dry-season hydrology and water quality influence algal mat production, grazer abundance and predator efficiency. Through international collaborative research in other Caribbean wetlands, we have been able to show that this phenomenon is not just distinctive of the Everglades, but of limestone-based Caribbean wetlands in general.
Long-term observational data have been coupled with long-term manipulations of the limiting nutrient, phosphorus, to determine its influence on the productivity paradox and trophic cascades. Our research indicates that anthropogenic nutrient enrichment erases the unusual pyramid of biomass by temporarily increasing algal edibility, thereby increasing production of aquatic consumers. However, phosphorus enrichment ultimately leads to a loss of algal mats, which reduces the structural refuge for aquatic animals, increasing their vulnerability to predation. This shift in algal and consumer biomass and structure is initiated at all phosphorus levels above background levels, and leads to an altered ecosystem state at rates dependent on the nutrient loading rate.
This research is of critical importance to hydrologic restoration of the Everglades and for protection of Caribbean wetlands, as it describes how hydrology controls food web structure directly and through interactions with the loading of the limiting nutrient.