Herbivores and periphyton: Littoral zone interactions in Lake Tanganyika

Herbivores and periphyton: Littoral zone interactions in Lake Tanganyika
Student: Stephanie Miller
Mentor: Ellinor Michel
The abundance of periphyton can vary enormously with depth, and standing stocks are often greatest in
shallow water (Power 1989). Light penetration decreases with depth, so this alone may be sufficient to
explain some variation in periphyton abundance. In many systems, grazers reduce periphyton stocks (e.g.
Matthews 1986, Cattaneo 1990), and aerial predators may restrict aquatic herbivores to deeper areas,
producing a decrease in algal abundance with depth (Power 1984). Additionally, waves may decrease
periphyton biomass in shallow areas by preventing some species from attaching to substrates in the surge
zone, but they could also increase biomass through increased water renewal (Cattaneo 1990). Wave energy
may also reduce herbivore grazing time or deter organisms from grazing in some areas because of the risk
of being swept into habitats with a more diverse assemblage of predators (Trussell 1997).
In the littoral zone of Lake Tanganyika, the mean euphotic zone reaches 28 m (Hecky 1991), and there is a
diverse assemblage of endemic species that graze epilithic algae. Observations indicate a clear decline in
periphyton stocks with depth along the first 5 m of substrate. In this project, I examined the relationship
between periphyton biomass, wave energy, and the distribution of herbivorous fish and snails. I tested
three hypotheses: 1) periphyton biomass decreases with depth; 2) exposure to herbivorous fish and snails
decreases periphyton biomass; and 3) depth and wave energy affect grazers’ ability to consume periphyton
at shallow depths, so herbivory has a stronger effect on periphyton biomass at greater depths.
Study site
Undisturbed littoral zone habitats of Lake Tanganyika host a diverse and largely endemic fauna, including
numerous gastropods and cichild fishes. Jakobsen’s beach lies southwest of Kigoma, Tanzania, along the
eastern shore of the lake. All of our work was focused on the southern rocky shoreline of Jakobsen’s beach
#1, a region representative of undisturbed rocky littoral habitats in the region.
Quantification of standing stock
I quantified the standing stock of periphyton at depths of 0.2, 0.6, 1.0, 2.0, and 5.0 m. Ten flat, upwardfacing rocks (9 x 9 cm to 20 x 20 cm) were collected from each depth along a 50 m stretch of shore line.
Rocks collected for sampling were separated by at least 1 m. Rocks were stored in submerged in lake
water in complete darkness, and were processed within 12 hours. Periphyton was sampled by placing a 42
mm diameter round jar lid over the center of the rock, removing the surrounding algae using a nylonbristled brush and rinsing with water, then removing the periphyton from the protected area using the same
method. Removed periphyton was rinsed from the rock surface to form an algal slurry. This slurry was
filtered onto pre-ashed 47 mm Gelman glass fiber filters using a vacuum pump. Chlorophyll a was
extracted by placing each filter into 94% EtOH for approximately 26-28 hours under darkness inside a
refrigerator. I did not grind the samples, but the vigorous removal from the substrate ensured that cells
were ruptured, and intact cells were likely to be ruptured by being frozen for 10-20 days prior to
chlorophyll extraction. After extraction, the ethanol solution was placed in a centrifuge tube and spun at
maximum speed for 10 minutes. Spectrophotometric absorbance of the supernate was measured at 665 and
750 nm wavelengths to quantify chlorophyll a. Samples were then acidified using 0.1 ml of 1N HCl/ml of
extract to control for absorbance by phaeopigments. Chlorophyll a concentration per sq.cm. were estimated
as 29.6*((abs(665)-abs(750))-(abs(665acidified)-abs(750acidified))) / 13.85 sq.cm.
Chl a per sq.cm.
y = 0.0892x2 - 0.6661x + 1.3563
R2 = 0.9609
Depth (cm)
Evaluation of fish grazing
A small team recorded fish grazing behavior over a two-week period. Large, flat boulders and bedrock
surfaces were selected haphazardly for observation and no surface were observed more than once. During
a 15-minute period, an observer at the surface recorded the number of fish visiting the observation area and
the species when possible. Both individual bites and total number of visits (defined as sustained feeding
activity during which the fish remained less than 10 cm from the substrate) were recorded. Fish feeding
behavior was also classified as either scraping or picking. After the observation period ended, I recorded
the height of the waves (measured as the average amplitude as they contacted vertical surfaces on the
shoreline near the observation area), and the depth and dimensions of the observation area.
Experiment: periphyton growth and grazing intensity as a function of depth
To measure the rate of periphyton accumulation, we placed ten pairs of unglazed clay tiles (~56 sq.cm.) at
both 1 and 5 meters on July 20, 2000. All tiles were covered with 1 cm2 plastic mesh screening to prevent
grazing, and pairs of tiles were secured to 49 cm lengths of rebar. These rebar stakes were wedged in
between rocks so that the faces of both tiles were parallel to the water’s surface.
On August 3, we removed the mesh around one tile in each pair (haphazard selection) to allow access by
grazers. To assess the intensity of grazing at each depth independent of periphyton stocks, 5 tile pairs from
each depth were transplanted to the other depth (i.e. a reciprocal transplant). This resulted in a 2 x 2 x 2
factorial design in which exposure to grazers was crossed with both initial and final depth. I ended the
experiment on August 6 and 7. After collecting 5 tile pairs from each depth on each day, I measured
primary production by removing all remaining screening and placing each tile in a separate 800 ml bag of
lake water. The dissolved oxygen (DO) and temperature of the water in each bag was recorded using a YSI
57 meter, and then bags were incubated in the sun on a flat, sandy area of Jakobsen’s Beach for 40 min.
After incubation, DO and temperature were again recorded in each bag. I then quantified periphyton
biomass by removing all algae within a 38 x 35.5 mm slide frame. The algal slurry was filtered onto 25
mm Gelman glass fiber filters, and chlorophyll a was extracted and quantified using the method described
earlier (except using 90% EtOH, and standardizing per unit area for the slide frame sample).
Natural periphyton standing stocks generally decreased with depth (Fig. 1). When depth is treated as a
categorical variable, there were significant difference between samples (F4,37=15.92, p<0.001). Post-hoc
tests indicate that the 20 cm sample differed from all other depths, but that the standing stocks at 60-500 cm
did not differ statistically.
Petrochromis polyodon, Tropheus moorii, and Simochromis diagramma were the dominant herbivorous
fishes recorded during the observation periods. There was no clear relationship between depth or wave
energy and fish grazing activity. Neither factor predicted the number of bites or visits (/sq.m) by fish in a
multiple linear regression. Thus, I have no evidence that the depth gradation of algae is attributable to the
distribution of herbivorous fish. However, my observations indicated that fish may graze somewhat less at
very shallow depths, and they seemed undeterred by wave action.
In the tile experiment, algae accumulated much more rapidly at 1 m than at 5 m (Fig. 2). In addition,
protected tiles apparently lost chlorphyll with transplantation to a different depth; this effect was smaller
and less consistent in the unprotected tiles. Exposure to herbivores significantly reduced the algal density
on tiles (t 19 =-2.89, p<0.01), but the effect of grazing on chlorophyll concentrations was generally higher in
non-transplanted tiles than those whose depth was changed. There was no clear difference between depths
in the intensity of herbivory. Overall, the reduction in algal standing stock on tiles attributable to
herbivores was similar that of increasing depth (Fig. 2). In addition, exposure to herbivores increased
production (oxygenesis) per unit chlorophyll during the 40 minute trials (t 19 =2.63, p<0.02; Fig. 3). This
effect was particularly pronounced in the 1 m tiles; there was little or no effect on the productivity of 5 m
1 m initial depth, unprotected
1 m initial depth, protected
Chl a per sq.cm
5 m initial depth, unprotected
5 m initial depth, protected
Final (transplant) depth (m)
1 m initial depth, unprotected
Productivity (mg/l DO per unit chl a)
1 m initial depth, protected
5 m initial depth, unprotected
5 m initial depth, protected
Final (transplant) depth (m)
In this series of surveys and experiments, I have tried to assess the relative contribution of light intensity,
herbivory, and wave action to maintaining low algal standing stocks in the rocky littoral zone of Lake
Tanganyika. While light is likely to contribute to the decline in periphyton biomass with depth, it may not
be the only factor. The euphotic zone in Lake Tanganyika extends well beyond 5 meters, and I observed an
increase in epilithic algae between 2 and 5 m, so it is likely that light limitation is not solely responsible for
differences in algal standing stocks with depth.
The results of the tile experiment suggest that the effect of herbivores on algal stocks may be as significant
as that of light energy. Since herbivore species are mobile, they should be able to target their feeding
efforts on the most abundant or highest quality food resources. Since algal stocks decreased with depth,
herbivores would be expected to graze more at shallow depths. In some systems, such resource tracking
produces a stable distribution of algal density despite variation in productivity (e.g. Power 1984).
However, my observations of fish feeding activity indicate that they do not target areas of high algal
density. This could reflect their avoidance of shallow depths, where wave-induced turbulence and
exposure to aerial predators are highest, but the data also indicate that wave energy has little effect on
feeding. Thus, it appears that the dramatic decrease in algal biomass with depth does not result from
patterns of feeding by herbivorous cichlids. It remains to be tested whether distributions and abundance of
gastropod herbivores better reflects that of algal stocks.
Broader and more extensive observations of grazing behavior may elucidate the relationship between
herbivores and periphyton stocks in the benthic littoral zone. For instance, I only observed fish on large,
flat, upward-facing surfaces, but some species may graze the underside of rocks to avoid predation or
territorial aggression. It is also possible that algal quality varies with depth; I have collected algal samples
for taxonomic determination, but no information on this subject is available at the moment. Another
interesting possibility is that algal productivity may be enhanced by turbulence in shallow water, so
standing stocks may simply reflect rates of production. For instance, waves may minimize boundary layers
along the rocky substrate, allowing algae access to more water and thus more nutrients and carbon dioxide.
Finally, we need to better understand the effect of depth on predation risk for herbivores, since predator
avoidance by fish or snails could contribute to accumulation of algal stocks.
Cattaneo, A. 1990. The effect of fetch on periphyton spatial variation. Hydrobiologia 206:1 -10
Hecky, R.E. 1991. The pelagic ecosystem. Pages 90-110 in G.W. Coulter, editor. Lake Tanganyika and its life. Oxford University
Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.
Matthews, W.J., M.E. Power, and A.J. Stewart. 1986. Depth distribution of Campostoma grazing scars in an Ozark stream.
Environmental Biology of Fishes 17:291-297.
Power, M.E. 1984. Depth distributions of armored catfish: predator-induced resource avoidance? 65:523-528.
Power, M.E., T.L. Dudley, S.D. Cooper. 1989. Grazing catfish, fishing birds, and attached algae in a Panamanian stream.
Environmental Biology of Fishes 26:285-294.
Trussell, G.C. 1997. Phenotypic plasticity in the foot size of an intertidal snail. Ecology 74:1033-1048.
Figure Legends
Figure 1. Natural pattern of periphyton chlorophyll with depth. These data reflect algal standing stocks on natural substrates.
Figure 2. Periphyton chlorophyll on clay tiles as a function of depth and protection from herbivores. Tiles were incubated under
plastic screens for 14 days at a depth of either 1 or 5 m, then half of the tiles were transplanted to the opposite depth and the screening
was removed from half of them. 3-4 days after transplantation, all tiles were harvested and algal stocks were estimated.
Figure 3. Effect of depth and exposure to herbivores on primary production by algae on clay tiles. Primary production was measured
as oxygenesis, and has been standardized to be independent of algal biomass.