Density-dependent mortality by predation and cannibalism has been observed in aquatic insects such as dragonflies in response to shrinking habitat caused by summer drought. Winter conditions might also reduce the amount of livable habitat in temperate ponds and could augment rates of cannibalism. We hypothesized that cannibalism in dragonfly nymphs would increase in winter due to a seasonal decrease in available habitat caused by stratified lower oxygen levels leading to increased nymph density around pond edges. To determine whether cannibalism in nymphs is density-dependent and size-dependent (i.e., with smaller nymphs consumed) we experimentally manipulated nymph density in aquaria. To evaluate whether these patterns are observed in nature during the winter, we conducted field surveys for nymphs in two ponds across the fall and winter seasons. When nymphs were housed at different densities for 24 h, cannibalism was density-dependent, and only smaller nymphs were preyed upon. Our field surveys found that fewer nymphs were caught in the late winter sampling period (mixed-effects model, P < 0.001), and that these were larger than nymphs caught in the fall, although both patterns were restricted to the deeper pond (P < 0.05). Our results were consistent with the process we hypothesized, and the observed reduction in dissolved oxygen at the bottom of the deeper pond. The lack of significant changes to the relative abundance and size of nymphs in the shallower pond reveals that differences in pond characteristics can influence the degree to which winter conditions induce density-dependent cannibalism among dragonfly nymphs.
Vol. 50 • No. 6
Vol. 50 • No. 6