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Research article2020Peer reviewedOpen access

Does browning-induced light limitation reduce fish body growth through shifts in prey composition or reduced foraging rates?

Van Dorst, Renee; Gårdmark, Anna; Svanback, Richard; Huss, Magnus


Browning of waters, coupled to climate change and land use changes, can strongly affect aquatic ecosystems. Browning-induced light limitation may have negative effects on aquatic consumers via shifts in resource composition and availability and by negatively affecting foraging of consumers relying on vision. However, the extent to which light limitation caused by browning affects fish via either of these two pathways is largely unknown. Here we specifically test if fish growth responses to browning in a pelagic food web are best explained by changes in resource availability and composition due to light limitation, or by reduced foraging rates due to decreased visual conditions. To address this question, we set up a mesocosm experiment to study growth responses of two different fish species to browning and conducted an aquaria experiment to study species-specific fish foraging responses to browning. Furthermore, we used a space-for-time approach to analyse fish body length-at-age across >40 lakes with a large gradient in lake water colour to validate experimental findings on species-specific fish growth responses. With browning, we found an increase in chlorophyll a concentrations, shifts in zooplankton community composition, and a decrease in perch (Perca fluviatilis) but not roach (Rutilus rutilus) body growth. We conclude that fish growth responses are most likely to be linked to the observed shift in prey (zooplankton) composition. In contrast, we found limited evidence for reduced perch, but not roach, foraging rates in response to browning. This suggests that light limitation led to lower body growth of perch in brown waters mainly through shifts in resource composition and availability, perhaps in combination with decreased visibility. Finally, with the lake study we confirmed that perch but not roach body growth and length-at-age are negatively affected by brown waters in the wild. In conclusion, using a combination of experimental and observational data, we show that browning of lakes is likely to (continue to) result in reductions in fish body growth of perch, but not roach, as a consequence of shifts in prey availability and composition, and perhaps reduced foraging.


climate change; pelagic food web; perch; roach; water colour

Published in

Freshwater Biology
2020, Volume: 65, number: 5, pages: 947-959
Publisher: WILEY