Species invasion progressively disrupts the trophic framework of indigenous foodstuff webs


Invasive species are a foremost bring about of biodiversity decline, nonetheless the mechanisms by which invaders progressively disrupt ecosystems and indigenous species stay unclear. Working with an intensive isotope dataset throughout multiple ecosystems and phases of invasion, we show that an invasive fish predator (lake trout) disrupted food items webs by forcing indigenous fishes to feed on suboptimal food sources in distinct habitats, resulting in the practical extirpation of the native predator, threatened bull trout. Our outcomes offer insights into the magnitude, way, and timing of meals internet disruption from invasive species and will be critical for predicting ecosystem repercussions of species invasions.


Species invasions can have substantial impacts on native species and ecosystems, with important outcomes for biodiversity. How these disturbances travel improvements in the trophic framework of indigenous food webs by means of time is improperly comprehended. Right here, we quantify trophic disruption in freshwater meals webs to invasion by an apex fish predator, lake trout, making use of an comprehensive stable isotope dataset across a organic gradient of uninvaded and invaded lakes in the northern Rocky Mountains, Usa. Lake trout invasion improved fish diet regime variability (trophic dispersion), displaced indigenous fishes from their reference meal plans (trophic displacement), and reorganized macroinvertebrate communities, indicating robust meals web disruption. Trophic dispersion was greatest 25 to 50 y after colonization and dissipated as food stuff webs stabilized in afterwards levels of invasion (>50 y). For the indigenous apex predator, bull trout, trophic dispersion preceded trophic displacement, primary to their practical decline in late-invasion food webs. Our success show how invasive species progressively disrupt indigenous meals webs through trophic dispersion and displacement, in the end yielding organic communities strongly divergent from these in uninvaded ecosystems.

Invasive species have brought about devastating ecological and financial impacts around the world (1, 2). For instance, invasive species are liable for the drop of nearly 50 percent of the species guarded by the US Endangered Species Act and those people named on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Pink Record and result in just about US$120 billion in once-a-year damages in the United States by yourself (3, 4). The scope of these damages has prompted the latest efforts to forecast the vulnerability of ecosystems to species invasions and prioritize them for management (5, 6), a procedure contingent on our capacity to comprehend the mechanisms by which invaders alter foods webs as a result of time (7). Though the economic hurt prompted by invasive species is apparent, predicting trophic responses to species invasions remains tough because advanced ecological variations can compound by time (8, 9).

Species invasions adjust interactions within just and between communities, with possibly intense consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems (10). Animals adapted to try to eat assorted foodstuff (i.e., diet plan generalists) often improve their eating plans to get over escalating level of competition for food items and/or to avoid new predators subsequent species invasions (11). People food plan changes then manifest in the trophic composition of foods webs in two most important ways: shifting diet program variability [i.e., trophic dispersion (12), such as switching from a specialist to a generalist diet] or prey switching [i.e., trophic displacement (13), such as eating insects instead of fish]. Given these styles, we propose the “trophic disruption hypothesis”: Species induce trophic dispersion and trophic displacement, which, given time, improve foods net structure and have an effect on biodiversity. Irrespective of some preliminary evidence that these trophic disruptions adjust as invasion progresses (14, 15), quantitative tests of this hypothesis throughout a range of intact and invaded ecosystems do not exist.

To take a look at the trophic disruption speculation, we examined the trophic results of an invasive piscivorous fish (lake trout Salvelinus namaycush) throughout lake foodstuff webs in the northern Rocky Mountains, Usa. Invasive predatory fishes deliver an great method to check this hypothesis mainly because they have been greatly introduced throughout the world and their means to mediate major modifications in the trophic construction of aquatic ecosystems is broadly identified (14). Lake trout have been deliberately, illegally, or invasively set up in around 200 waters in western North America (16), ensuing in cascading adjustments inside and throughout ecosystems (17, 18). Populations of bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus), a person of the most threatened cold-drinking water fishes in North The usa, have dramatically declined in most lakes in which lake trout have been introduced or invaded (16). Bull trout and lake trout are apex predators and share very similar feeding methods, diets, and morphologies, creating competitiveness and predation likely involving these species (19). Inspite of this key conservation threat, no scientific studies have evaluated the impacts of lake trout invasion throughout whole food webs supporting native bull trout.

We leveraged a purely natural experiment to quantify how trophic dispersion and displacement unfold adhering to species invasion. Although if not similar, our 10 review lakes that contained indigenous bull trout populations ranged in invasion severity from reference (i.e., uninvaded) to entirely dominated by lake trout. We made use of this invasion gradient to simulate the development of trophic disruption in excess of decades by classifying lakes on a scale of to 1 primarily based on the relative abundance of bull trout to lake trout (reference, midinvasion, .4 to .8 and late invasion, .8 to 1). We utilized stable nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) isotopes (1,459 samples) to determine how fish meal plans adjusted as lake trout invasion progressed. Stable isotope analyses give time-integrated and electrical power-based mostly depictions of trophic framework that facilitate knowing foods internet penalties of species invasions (13). The ratio of stable nitrogen isotopes (15N:14N δ15N) displays stepwise enrichment (usually 3 to 4‰) in between prey and predators and is employed to infer the trophic situation of individuals (20). The ratio of steady carbon isotopes (13C:12C δ13C) varies substantially (>10‰) among littoral-benthic and pelagic main producers but adjustments minor (generally <1‰) from prey to predators and is used to infer energy sources used for secondary production (20). By combining long-term abundance monitoring data and stable isotope analyses, we determined how invasion-induced trophic dispersion and displacement changed over time in these lake food webs.


Lake trout invasion restructured food webs and produced substantial trophic dispersion (i.e., diet variability) in four of five fish groups (Figs. 1 and 2A). Trophic dispersion, indicated by isotope ellipse area, was low in reference lakes, increased in midinvasion lakes, and declined in late-invasion lakes for bull trout and generalist fishes, but increased and remained elevated for lake trout and littoral forage fish. Unlike other fish groups, pelagic fish isotope ellipse areas did not differ across invasion states. Overall, these results show that the magnitude of trophic dispersion from lake trout invasion was greatest in midinvasion lakes.

Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Stable isotope evidence for trophic dispersion and displacement. (A) Fish diet breadth, as indicated by posterior estimates of standard Bayesian ellipse areas, among phases of lake trout invasion (reference, mid-, and late invasion). Boxplots show median and interquartile range (boxes), minimum and maximum (whiskers), and outliers (points). n = 4,000 posterior estimates. N
fish is provided in

SI Appendix, Table S1. (B and C) Results from linear mixed-effects models comparing fish δ15N (B) and δ13C (C) to show directional changes in fish diet among phases of lake trout invasion. Model results are shown as mean ± SE (points ± error bars). P values are provided in

SI Appendix, Table S1.

δ15N trophic displacement of bull trout and pelagic forage fish increased with lake trout invasion, but the effect appeared to be temporary. Our study lakes had two fish trophic levels: piscivorous lake trout and bull trout with high δ15N and mesopredators with lower δ15N (Fig. 2B). Lake trout, generalist fish, and littoral forage fish maintained constant δ15N throughout invasion (Fig. 2B). In contrast, bull trout and pelagic forage fish δ15N shifted in opposite directions midinvasion (Fig. 2B and

SI Appendix, Table S1). This δ15N inflection brought bull trout to within the 95% CIs of the mesopredator fish trophic position (Figs. 1 and 2B and

SI Appendix, Table S1), suggesting that bull trout functioned as mesopredators in midinvasion lakes. The increase of pelagic forage fish δ15N could reflect a changing zooplankton community from tritrophic interactions (21). By late invasion, bull trout and pelagic forage fish δ15N returned to reference levels, consistent with the dynamics of trophic dispersion for bull trout (Fig. 2B). Finally, lake trout δ15N was consistently higher than bull trout δ15N (mean differences: mid, 2.06‰ late, 1.02‰ Fig. 2B and

SI Appendix, Table S1), suggesting that lake trout consumed bull trout diet modeling was consistent with this interpretation, estimating that lake trout diet consisted of ∼14% bull trout (

SI Appendix, Fig. S1).

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

Temporal dynamics of bull trout and lake trout diet overlap and lake conversion to lake trout dominance. (A and B) Scaled density histograms showing proportional diet overlap between bull trout and lake trout. (A) Proportion of bull trout diet overlapping lake trout diet. (B) Proportion of lake trout diet overlapping bull trout diet. Dotted and solid vertical lines are 50% credible intervals for proportional isotope ellipse overlap in midinvasion (yellow) and late-invasion (red) lakes, respectively. Summary statistics are provided in

SI Appendix, Table S4. (C) Binomial linear regression of conversion through time in Logging, McDonald, Bowman, and Kintla lakes in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA. Data are presented as empirical conversion (n = 25 black points) and predicted conversion (black curve r
2 = 0.81) with 95% CIs (blue-yellow-red ribbon). Binomial regression coefficients for invasion timeline (

SI Appendix, Table S5, Eq. 2): β0 = −3.251 and β = 0.091. Empirical conversion data are from 1969 to 2019 standardized gill net surveys conducted by the US National Park Service (Glacier National Park). The invasion timeline converts the survey year of empirical data to years since predicted lake trout colonization (conversion, ∼0) in the study system.

δ13C trophic displacement increased for all fish species (Fig. 2C), either consistently across lake invasion status or as a discontinuous inflection. Bull trout and generalist fish δ13C increased throughout invasion, suggesting increased reliance on littoral prey as invasion progressed. Pelagic and littoral forage fish δ13C first declined and then increased, with small δ13C decreases from reference to midinvasion followed by larger δ13C increases from midinvasion and late invasion. Interestingly, lake trout δ13C also increased from mid- to late invasion, which may indicate decreasing abundances of pelagic forage fish and a subsequent shift to littoral prey (22).

Trophic structure (δ15N and δ13C) of littoral macroinvertebrates did not correlate with lake trout invasion status but littoral macroinvertebrate community structure did (permANOVA F
2,62 = 6.3, P = 0.001). Reference and midinvasion littoral macroinvertebrate communities were similar to one another in diversity and taxonomic identity (

SI Appendix, Fig. S2). In contrast, late-invasion macroinvertebrate communities were widely dispersed in ordination space, indicating high beta diversity compared with reference or midinvasion communities and demonstrating that late-invasion communities differed from one another taxonomically and/or in diversity. Finally, 17 of 35 (49%) late-invasion macroinvertebrate communities fell outside the 95% CI ellipses of the reference or midinvasion communities, indicating that macroinvertebrate communities diverged as lake trout invasion progressed.

The isotopic signatures of bull trout and lake trout revealed asymmetric shifts in diet overlap between these apex predators as invasion progressed (Fig. 3 A and B). Midinvasion bull trout were displaced from their reference trophic position (Fig. 2B) and only shared 30% of the same diet as lake trout (50% credible interval Fig. 3A, Mid and

SI Appendix, Table S4). By late invasion, bull trout shared 85% of the same diet as lake trout (50% credible interval Fig. 3A, Late). In contrast, lake trout diet overlapped bull trout diet throughout the invasion (50% credible intervals: midinvasion, 62% late invasion, 75% Fig. 3B and

SI Appendix, Table S4). These asymmetrical diet shifts reflect changing trophic dispersion and displacement among these species (Fig. 2) and suggest that lake trout competitively excluded bull trout from pelagic prey in midinvasion lakes but continued to compete with bull trout for food even as bull trout transitioned to littoral prey.

Using 50 y of long-term monitoring data collected in several of our study lakes, we developed a lake trout “conversion” metric (e.g., ref. 7

SI Appendix, Table S5, Eqs. 1–4) to estimate the chronology of bull trout displacement by tracking the relative abundance of lake trout to bull trout over time. Conversion values across invaded lakes showed that lake trout steadily displaced bull trout over time, resulting in complete dominance and functional extirpation of native bull trout ∼85 y following lake trout colonization. Our conversion model suggests that lake trout were present for about 15 y prior to being detected, suggesting a considerable lag in the ability to detect lake trout in the early stages of invasion and colonization. These findings are consistent with other studies that have found that invaders can remain undetected for years following colonization in novel ecosystems (23).


The ecological consequences of species invasions are often assessed by comparing food webs before and after invasion in one or a few systems. In this study, we quantified invasion-induced food web disruption across a complete gradient of uninvaded and invaded lakes and found that trophic dispersion and displacement reverberated through food webs over decades. Across all fish species, the magnitude of trophic dispersion was generally greatest 25 to 50 y after colonization and dissipated as food webs stabilized in later stages of invasion. Trophic disruption was especially intense for the native top predator, bull trout, which were ultimately replaced by the invasive predator, lake trout, in late-invasion lakes. Together, our results demonstrate how invasive species initiate and maintain disruption of native food webs via trophic dispersion and trophic displacement, ultimately yielding divergent biological communities.

This study provides empirical evidence that species invasion destabilizes food webs through a stepwise series of trophic disruptions, resulting in a new ecological regime dominated by the invasive predator (24). First, stable trophic positions of predators and prey are one component of stable food webs (25) while trophic dispersion implicitly involves variability in trophic position (13). Lake trout invasion induced significant trophic dispersion, thereby disrupting trophic positions and destabilizing food webs in midinvasion lakes. Second, food web stability increases when apex predators are supported by a balance of littoral- and pelagic-derived carbon (26). We found that native bull trout and other fishes increasingly relied on littoral foods as invasion progressed, which may have destabilized food webs and promoted their transition to lake trout dominance. Indeed, food web instability is a precursor to ecological state change (27), and biological invasions are known to yield alternative ecological states (24). Given that trophic dispersion dissipated in late-invasion lakes, it is likely that these food web changes ultimately produced a new ecological regime dominated by the invasive top predator and the functional loss of the native top predator.

We found that an invasive pelagic predator, lake trout, forced other fishes to increasingly rely on littoral resources in deep glacial lakes. This directional shift is converse to a previous study that showed invasive littoral predators caused native lake trout to increasingly rely on pelagic foods in Canadian lakes (13). Although trophic displacement has been documented for a variety of taxa (14), these complementary results demonstrate that the direction of trophic displacement is a function of the feeding habitat an invader occupies and provide clear evidence that invasive predators can influence dominant energy pathways of native predators. Together, these results provide a basis for understanding and predicting the directional effects of invasive species on recipient food webs.

Trophic dispersion and displacement varied among fish species, suggesting different types of competitive interactions among species. Trophic dispersion was acute for most prey fish, with the greatest dispersion occurring 25 to 50 y following lake trout colonization. For prey fish, these disruptions likely increased exploitative competition, which promotes the persistence of dietary generalists at the expense of specialists (28). At the top of the food chain, however, invasive lake trout displaced native bull trout to a mesopredator role 25 to 50 y after colonization. During the same time period, lake trout consumed bull trout (about 14% of their diet) and their abundance increased relative to bull trout across invaded lakes, ultimately resulting in the functional extirpation of bull trout in late-invasion food webs. Together, these findings suggest that interference competition and predation are the primary mechanisms that prevent these species from coexisting after lake trout invasion (29).

Ultimately, protecting entire landscapes from biological invasions may be needed to sustain native biodiversity and ecosystems. This strategy may require eliminating the introduction of invasive species, including nonnative fish-stocking programs, and using innovative biosurveillance monitoring techniques, such as environmental DNA (30), for early detection of potential invaders. For the restoration of invaded ecosystems, our findings emphasize the need to implement proactive control efforts, particularly during colonization and early stages of establishment, to avoid food web disruptions that may be difficult to reverse. This study provides a better basis for predicting ecosystem impacts of species invasions and can be used for strategic planning of conservation and mitigation efforts across entire ecosystems.

Materials and Methods

Study Systems.

The study area consisted of nine natural lakes and one reservoir (collectively called “lakes” throughout this article) west of the Continental Divide in northwestern Montana, USA (

SI Appendix, Table S2). These oligotrophic, dimictic lakes are in forested and undeveloped watersheds on US public lands, like state and national forests and parks. Study lakes were classified into three categories based on their history of lake trout invasion: 1) reference, 2) midinvasion (i.e., middle), and 3) late invasion (

SI Appendix, Table S2). Reference lakes have a native fish assemblage and have no lake trout (current conversion, 0). Midinvasion lakes have sympatric bull trout and lake trout populations and current (i.e., 2019 or most recent available) conversion between 0.4 and 0.8. Late-invasion lakes also have sympatric bull trout and lake trout populations but have current conversion values greater than 0.8. “Conversion” is analogous to lake trout dominance.

Food Web Sampling.

All samples were collected between June and October in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Fish were collected with sinking and floating mono- and multifilament gill nets, littoral fyke nets, benthic hoop nets, hook and line, and backpack electrofishing concurrent with US National Park Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries surveys. Gill nets were 38-m-long by 2-m-deep panels of 10- to 100-mm bar mesh. Fyke nets had 8-m leads and 4-m hoop sections with one 75-mm vertical trapping pane, one 90-mm throat, and black 6-mm stretch mesh. Benthic hoop nets were 4 m long with two 90-mm throats and black 6-mm stretch mesh. Fyke and hoop nets were deployed in 12-h increments. Electrofishing was conducted in shallow water along lake shores using a Smith-Root LR-24. Animal (fish) sampling was conducted by US National Park Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks management agencies during routine monitoring surveys in accordance with agency animal use and care protocols. Bull trout collections were authorized with a special collection permit (Section 10) issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Change History

November 3, 2021: Figure 1 has been updated please see accompanying Correction for details.


This study was supported by the US Geological Survey (USGS) Biological Threats Program and The University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station (FLBS). This research was conducted in collaboration with the US National Park Service, USGS, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and FLBS. We thank C. Kolar Tam (USGS) and T. Bansak (FLBS) for funding support. We thank V. D’Angelo, J. McCubbins, C. Downs, L. Rosenthal, E. Schick, J. Matthews, D. Six, C. Fredenberg, J. Vanderwall, B. Weber, Z. Ren, and A. Baumann for field, laboratory, and logistical support. We thank C. Downs and J. McCubbins of the US National Park Service for providing monitoring data from Glacier National Park. We thank J. Giersch for assistance with the figures. A portion of the work contained herein comes from the thesis of C.A.W. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


    • Received February 8, 2021.
    • Accepted September 14, 2021.
  • Author contributions: C.A.W., C.C.M., J.J.E., and S.P.D. designed research C.A.W., C.C.M., and S.L.B. performed research C.A.W., C.C.M., J.J.E., and S.P.D. analyzed data and C.A.W., C.C.M., J.J.E., S.L.B., and S.P.D. wrote the paper.

  • Reviewers: W.F.C., Montana State University and M.J.V.Z., University of Wisconsin–Madison.

  • The authors declare no competing interest.

  • This article contains supporting information online at

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