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The cost of tolerance: sensitivity of stream benthic communities to UV-B and metals.

  • Kashian, Donna R
  • Zuellig, Robert E
  • Mitchell, Katharine A
  • Clements, William H
Published Article
Ecological Applications
Wiley (John Wiley & Sons)
Publication Date
Mar 01, 2007
PMID: 17489245


The ability to tolerate disturbance is a defense strategy that minimizes the effects of damage to fitness and is essential for sustainability of populations, communities, and ecosystems. Despite the apparent benefits of tolerance, there may be an associated cost that results in a deficiency of a system to respond to additional disturbances. Aquatic ecosystems are often exposed to a variety of natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and the effects of these compound perturbations are not well known. In this investigation, we examine whether tolerance to one stressor, metals, results in a cost of increased sensitivity to an additional stressor, ultraviolet-B (UV-B) radiation. Heavy metal pollution is recognized as a major environmental problem in Rocky Mountain streams. These high-elevation, typically clear streams may be at particular risk to elevated UV-B levels associated with reduced levels of ozone. Microcosm experiments were conducted using natural stream benthic communities collected from a reference site and a site with a long-term history of heavy-metal pollution. Direct and interactive effects of heavy metals and UV-B radiation on structural and functional characteristics of benthic communities were evaluated among four treatments: control, UV-B, metals, and metal and UV-B. Communities from the metal-polluted site were more tolerant of metals but less tolerant to UV-B compared to reference communities. Increased mayfly drift and reduced metabolism in response to metal exposure were observed in reference communities but not in the metal-polluted communities. In contrast to these results, UV-B radiation significantly reduced community metabolism, total macroinvertebrate abundance, and abundances of mayflies, caddisflies, and dipterans from the metal-polluted site, but had no effects on benthic communities from the reference site. ANOSIM results demonstrated that community responses differed among treatments at both sites. Metals had the largest impact on community differences at both sites, while UV-B had greater impacts at the metal-polluted site. This research demonstrates the need to account for potential costs associated with tolerance and that these costs can result in behavioral, structural, and functional impacts to benthic communities.

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