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In 2018, M. Jake Vander Zanden and Yvonne Vadeboncoeur were invited to give a plenary lecture at the International Society for Limnology (SIL) meeting in Nanjing, China. They spoke about their efforts to synthesize a more holistic understanding of the role of benthic productivity and food web pathways in lakes. 

The two began their journey in cross-habitat and cross-trophic level studies twenty years earlier in 1998, when Vander Zaden was a graduate student and Vadeboncoeur a postdoctoral fellow in Silkeborg, Denmark. For the past two decades, they’ve focused on studying the importance of benthic production to lake ecosystems, including five lakes that comprise the North Temperate Lakes (NTL) LTER. A new paper summarizes their synthesis research to illustrate the importance of whole-lake connections, highlighting a paradigm shift in limnology. 

The paper shifts focus from classic lake studies centered on planktonic (free floating) productivity to productive algae attached to substrates in the water, and how they enhance the lake food web. Based on their comprehensive study, the authors present four essential questions that relate to the role of benthic productivity and food web pathways in lakes: 

  1. What is the contribution of attached algae to whole-lake primary production?
  2. Are attached algae an important basal resource for consumers?
  3. What are the roles of benthic habitats and resources in supporting lake biodiversity?
  4. What is the role of lake benthic pathways in aquatic-terrestrial linkages?

The questions are meant to help limnologists incorporate benthic activity — which is often overlooked  — into their analyses of lake ecosystems. Vander Zaden and Vadeboncoeur hope their work will help limnology expand to a whole-lake perspective as opposed to focusing mostly on planktonic, open-water habitats in lake productivity. 

Moving forward the duo hope to emphasize the critical role benthic productivity plays in linking aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and to enforce the idea that the field can continue to progress with research that’s useful to policy and management. The goal is that in the next 20 years, the field of limnology can fully integrate an understanding of benthic production and littoral zone function — not only to improve conceptual models — but also to help us better understand anthropogenic impacts to, and management solutions for, vital lake ecosystems.

-Sidney Gerst

M. Jake Vander Zanden & Yvonne Vadeboncoeur (2020): Putting the lake back together 20 years later: what in the benthos have we learned about habitat linkages in lakes?, Inland Waters, DOI: 10.1080/20442041.2020.1712953