Interest in understanding the influence of ultraviolet-B (UVB; 280–320 nm) radiation in aquatic ecosystems has increased since the early 1990s. Pollution from historic mining operations coupled with physicochemical characteristics of Rocky Mountain streams that increase exposure of benthic communities to UVB provided an opportunity to examine how UVB interacted with heavy metal contamination to structure stream communities. We integrated a series of UVB addition experiments done in stream microcosms with a large-scale UVB shading experiment to test the hypothesis that effects of UVB were greater on benthic communities from metal-polluted streams than from reference streams. Microcosm experiments involved short-term exposure (7–10 d) of natural benthic macroinvertebrate communities collected from reference and metal-contaminated sites to lamp-generated UVB. In all cases, abundance decreased in UVB-treated streams compared to controls. Moreover, effects of UVB addition were significantly greater on communities from metal-polluted sites than from reference sites. The field experiment involved shading portions of the streambed from UVB for 60 d at 12 streams along a Zn gradient. Median Zn concentration at these sites ranged between 5 and 530 μg/L, and mean UVB reaching the streambed varied from 6.5 to 29.0 J/cm2. Results of the field experiment indicated that removal of UVB significantly increased total macroinvertebrate abundance and abundance of grazers, mayflies, caddisflies, Orthocladiinae midges, and the mayfly Baetis bicaudatus compared to controls. Grazer abundance was significantly greater in UVB removal treatments compared to controls, but UVB removal had no effect on algal biomass. As with the microcosm experiments, the effects of UVB removal on benthic communities were generally greater at metal-polluted sites than at reference sites. We speculate that the energetic cost of regulating metals might inhibit the ability of some organisms to repair efficiently DNA damaged by UVB exposure. Our results demonstrate that benthic communities in Colorado Rocky Mountain streams are negatively influenced by UVB radiation and that communities subjected to long-term metal exposure are more sensitive to UVB than are reference communities. As a consequence, the effects of increased UVB radiation reaching the earth's surface might be more severe than previously considered in systems receiving multiple stressors.
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Vol. 27 • No. 1