A test of biological trait analysis with nematodes and an anthropogenic stressor

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Aquatic ecosystems are fundamentally altered by nutrient enrichment, and effective monitoring tools are needed to detect biological responses especially in the early stages of eutrophication. We tested the utility of biological trait analysis (BTA) to quantify the temporal responses of nematodes inhabiting salt marsh creeks that were experimentally enriched with nutrients for 6 years. Feeding, body shape, and tail shape traits were characterized on >6000 nematodes from annual samples from enriched and non-enriched sites. Here, we ask if trait combinations are more effective than single traits in detecting the magnitude and rate of change. We also sought to identify combinations of traits that best distinguish natural from nutrient-induced variation. BTA revealed that feeding, body shape, and all traits combined equally detected the response to nutrient enrichment. Compared to single traits however, BTAs were more sensitive to temporal trends and better distinguished natural variation from the response to nutrient enrichment. Tail shape traits (that might respond to altered sediment texture or geochemistry) were not affected by enrichment, and feeding traits yielded the greatest difference between enriched and reference communities indicating that changes in food resources drove responses. Feeding traits provided the highest quality information content in our study, and the use of feeding traits alone may adequately identify anthropogenic effects in many studies. However, we caution that body shape, tail shape, and feeding traits were strongly interrelated at our study site, and a diversity of trait groups may increase the information content of BTAs in more diverse habitats.

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Environmental monitoring and assessment

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