Year of Publication

2008

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Dissertation

College

Agriculture

Department

Entomology

First Advisor

Dr. Mary Arthur

Second Advisor

Dr. John Obrycki

Abstract

Historically, terrestrial food web research has focused on describing the structure of aboveground grazing webs, and determining how interactions among plants, herbivores and higher trophic levels influence primary productivity. Detrital food webs however, play a significant role in regulation of ecosystem dynamics through direct impacts on decomposition. Unraveling the complex nature of detrital food web structure is critical to developing a better understanding of ecosystem function. Therefore the primary objective of this research was to describe the structure of the leaf-litter food web in a temperate deciduous forest, with emphasis on interactions between a community of generalist predators, the forest-floor spiders, and arthropod prey.

Elucidating occurrence of trophic interactions in the forest-floor food web was a formidable task due to the high diversity, small body sizes and cryptic habits of many litter-dwelling arthropods. Analysis of natural variation in consumer stable isotope ratios (δ13C and δ15N) formed the crux of this research because it simultaneously permitted quantification of the trophic positions of litterdwelling arthropods and identification of spider resources, including prey subsidies from the grazing web. A monoclonal antibody-based ELISA was employed to analyze the gut contents of spiders to quantify predation on a major arthropod taxon, the forest-floor flies. Surveys of spider distributions and prey availability in the litter layer also provided fundamental knowledge of community structure.

Stable isotope analyses suggested that most spiders exhibited strong trophic connections to the detrital web, but weak links to herbivorous prey. Several lines of evidence supported a strong trophic link between large, litterdwelling collembolans (Tomoceridae) and cursorial spiders, including correlation between spider and tomocerid densities on the forest-floor, similarities in spider and tomocerid carbon signatures, and nitrogen enrichment of tomocerids relative to other prey types. Conversely, this research provided conflicting evidence regarding spider consumption of flies. Gut content assays indicated consistent predation on flies by cursorial spiders, while stable isotope models suggested that flies are likely of little importance in the spiders’ diets. This project yielded valuable insights into the role of spiders in the forest-floor food web and the potential importance of species-specific variation in prey consumption for detrital food web dynamics.

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