In low nutrient alpine lakes, the littoral zone is the most productive part of the ecosystem, and it is a biodiversity hotspot. It is not entirely clear how the scale and physical heterogeneity of surrounding catchment, its ecological composition, and larger landscape gradients work together to sustain littoral communities.
A total of 113 alpine lakes from the central Pyrenees were surveyed to evaluate the functional connectivity between littoral zoobenthos and landscape physical and ecological elements at geographical, catchment and local scales, and to ascertain how they affect the formation of littoral communities. At each lake, the zoobenthic composition was assessed together with geolocation, catchment hydrodynamics, geomorphology and topography, riparian vegetation composition, the presence of trout and frogs, water pH and conductivity.
Multidimensional fuzzy set models integrating benthic biota and environmental variables revealed that at geographical scale, longitude unexpectedly surpassed altitude and latitude in its effect on littoral ecosystem. This reflects a sharp transition between Atlantic and Mediterranean climates and suggests a potentially high horizontal vulnerability to climate change. Topography (controlling catchment type, snow coverage and lakes connectivity) was the most influential catchment-scale driver, followed by hydrodynamics (waterbody size, type and volume of inflow/outflow). Locally, riparian plant composition significantly related to littoral community structure, richness and diversity. These variables, directly and indirectly, create habitats for aquatic and terrestrial stages of invertebrates, and control nutrient and water cycles. Three benthic associations characterised distinct lakes. Vertebrate predation, water conductivity and pH had no major influence on littoral taxa.
This work provides exhaustive information from relatively pristine sites, and unveils a strong connection between littoral ecosystem and catchment heterogeneity at scales beyond the local environment. This underpins the role of alpine lakes as sensors of local and large-scale environmental changes, which can be used in monitoring networks to evaluate further impacts.