Experimental evidence for the decline of submerged vegetation in freshwater ecosystems by the invasive Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis)
Journal Contribution - Journal Article
The Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis) is a damaging invader which is designated as a species of Union Concern within the European Union. A negative impact of the crabs on macrophyte vegetation in lowland rivers is suspected but not yet proven or quantified. We have performed a mesocosm study that combines a density gradient of Chinese mitten crabs (0, 0.3, 1.0 and 2.5 ind. m −2) with chemical stress (2350 µg EDTA L −1 + 258 µg glyphosate L −1) or light limitation stress (− 70% irradiance compared to control) on water plants (Myriophyllum spicatum). The results clearly demonstrate that the crabs are capable of removing plant shoots effectively which can lead to a complete elimination of the vegetation. Generally, the higher the crab density, the sooner the plants started to disappear and the sooner the vegetation was completely removed. Additional light and chemical stress accelerated this process: plant disappearance at a crab density of 0.3 ind. m −2 compared to 1.0 ind. m −2 in the control treatments. Video recording, plant strength and crab pinch strength measurements and stable isotope signatures of δ 13C and δ 15N in the Chinese mitten crabs and their possible food sources showed that directly eating the plants is causing only minor damage to the plants. Most damage comes from the movement of the crabs and crab–crab interactions during which they use their chelae to grasp the shoots. We conclude that a decline of vegetation as a consequence of Chinese mitten crab behaviour can be a realistic scenario in freshwater ecosystems and warrants close attention and monitoring. Being primary producers and ecological engineers, macrophytes are key species in these ecosystems, whose services are lost when they disappear and are difficult to restore.