Ecological Concepts Important for the Interpretation of Effects of Chemicals on Aquatic Systems

  • Robert C. PetersenJr.
  • Lena B.-M. Petersen
Part of the Springer Series on Environmental Management book series (SSEM)


Some ecological concepts usually not considered in ecotoxicology are presented and their importance in assessing the effects of hazardous substances on aquatic systems at the population, community and ecosystem level are discussed.

At the population level the distribution of mortality is briefly reviewed. It is pointed out that contrary to the mortality curve for commonly used laboratory organisms such as Daphnia, many aquatic populations experience most of their mortality at the beginning of the life cycle. Results of a chronic study using the stream invertebrate, Hydropsyche siltalai, demonstrates how this high natural mortality can mask the effect of two toxic chemicals, arsenite and 4,5,6-trichloroguaiacol. The masking of the effect of the chemicals is an example of population compensatory mortality and it is suggested that this may complicate the interpretation of chemical effects data.

At the community level the problems associated with interpreting effects data are linked to the lack of objective criteria. It is suggested that the study of a small group of ecologically related organisms, a guild, can provide more information on the effect of toxic substances than the study of the whole community. This approach is illustrated with a study of a guild of stream dwelling invertebrates in a metal polluted river. A key to this analysis is the recognition of the difference in species sensitivity and it is suggested that the specialist-generalist concept can be used to predict which species will be most affected by toxic substances. An ecological specialist with a narrow set of niche dimensions will be relatively more sensitive to toxic stress (stenotoxic) than a more generalist (eurytoxic) species. It is then suggested that the prediction of which species will be most sensitive should be coupled to its ecological role in the community with special attention paid to keystone species. Not all species are of equal importance to system structure and function as is illustrated with examples from the ecological literature and field studies of a metal-polluted river.

The ecological concepts discussed are expanded into a set of recommendations or decision rules for the interpretation of the effect of toxic substances on aquatic systems. They are; (1) the population mortality distribution should be known since natural mortality may mask the effect of a toxic chemical through compensatory mechanisms, (2) guilds of ecologically related species will provide more information on toxic effects than whole communities, (3) species with broad ecological niches (generalists) will be more tolerant to toxic stress (eurytoxic) than species with narrow specialized niches which will be less tolerant to toxic stress (stenotoxic), (4) knowledge of the keystone species and the effects on it are important for understanding ecological effects, and (5) structural properties of communities are less conservative and will be affected first and to a greater extent by a toxic agent than functional properties.


Aquatic Insect Early Life Stage Keystone Species Ecological Concept Toxic Stress 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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  • Robert C. PetersenJr.
  • Lena B.-M. Petersen

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