Regime shifts in freshwater ecosystems exposed to multiple stressors by increasing temperature, fertilizers and pesticides

Shallow freshwater habitats provide vital ecosystem functions but are threatened by multiple stress-ors acting at different spatial and temporal scales. While a response to global climate change might be gradual, abrupt changes are possible when critical thresholds by additional effects of local stressors are exceeded.

The difficulty in analysing effects of multiple stressors is to account for complexity, as stressors may act additive, synergistic or antagonistic. CLIMSHIFT aims for a mechanistic under-standing of stressor interactions acting on shallow aquatic systems, which are especially vulnerable to climate warming and agricultural run-off due to their high surface to water ratios, large riparian interface and groundwater connectivity. Complex interactions between different functional groups of benthic and pelagic primary producers and associated consumers result in alternative stable regimes. Multiple stressors may trigger non-linear shifts between those regimes, with far-reaching effects on crucial ecosystem processes and functions.

Our main hypothesis is that increased temperature will enhance negative effects of agricultural run-off, containing nitrates, pesticides and copper. Submerged plants, periphyton and phytoplankton as primary producers will be combined with the second trophic level, consumers, composed of the snail Lymnaea, consuming periphyton and plants, and benthic and pelagic phytoplankton filter-feeders, Dreissena and Daphnia. We will apply exposure scenarios at two different spatial scales to understand effects at the individual, community and ecosystem level. Investigations in microcosms at laboratory scale will be upscaled to larger, outdoor mesocosms.

We will use an integrative dynamical model approach to simulate potential outcomes and critical thresholds, and predict stressor interactions. Model development will be conducted in close collaboration with all work packages to identify the most appropriate modelling approach, integrate empirical results, link different spatial and temporal scales, generalize and extrapolate results, and develop and test hypotheses. We expect that combined stressors will lead to sudden shifts in community structure in highly coupled systems. Macrophytes are expected to be replaced by phyto-plankton or benthic algae, with major consequences for important ecosystem functions.

The strength of our project is that common ecotoxicological stress indicators such as growth and biomarkers of the different organisms will be combined with functional community/ecosystem approaches looking at ecosystem metabolism and dynamics. Five laboratories with complementary expertise and all necessary facilities will ensure the project feasibility. The outcome of our project will support the definition of “safe operating spaces” for a sustainable agriculture and management of shallow aquatic systems in a changing world.


Short Profile


(Dept. 1) Ecohydrology and Biogeochemistry
(Dept. 2) Community and Ecosystem Ecology
Research Domain
Dimensions of Complexity of Aquatic Systems
Funded by



Elisabeth Gross (Univ. Metz)

Herwig Stibor (LMU München)

Mechthild Schmitt-Jansen (UFZ Leipzig)

Josephine Leflaive (Univ. Toulouse)

Contact person

Sabine Hilt

Research Group Leader
Research group
Aquatic-Terrestrial Coupling and Regime Shifts

Franz Hölker

Programme Area Speaker
Research group
Light Pollution and Ecophysiology

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