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Cross-ecosystem fluxes of pesticides from prairie wetlands mediated by aquatic insect emergence: Implications for terrestrial insectivores

May 12, 2021

Contaminants alter the quantity and quality of insect prey available to terrestrial insectivores. In agricultural regions, the quantity of aquatic insects emerging from freshwaters can be impacted by insecticides originating from surrounding croplands. We hypothesized that, in such regions, adult aquatic insects could also act as vectors of pesticide transfer to terrestrial food webs. To estimate insect-mediated pesticide flux from wetlands embedded in an important agricultural landscape, semipermanetly and temporarily ponded wetlands were surveyed in cropland and grassland landscapes across a natural salinity gradient in the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota (USA) during the bird breeding season in 2015 and 2016 (n = 14 and 15 wetlands, respectively). Current-use pesticides, including the herbicide atrazine and the insecticides bifenthrin and imidacloprid, were detected in newly emerged insects. Pesticide detections were similar in insects emerging from agricultural and grassland wetlands. Biomass of emerging aquatic insects decreased 43%, and insect-mediated pesticide flux increased 50% along the observed gradient in concentrations of insecticides in emerging aquatic insects (from 3 to 577 ng total insecticide g–1 insect). Overall, adult aquatic insects were estimated to transfer between 2 and 180 µg total pesticide wetland–1 d–1 to the terrestrial ecosystem. In one of the 2 study years, biomass of emerging adult aquatic insects was also 73% lower from agricultural than grassland wetlands and was dependent on salinity. Our results suggest that accumulated insecticides reduce the availability of adult aquatic insect prey for insectivores and potentially increase insectivore exposure to insect-borne pesticides. Adult aquatic insects retain pesticides across metamorphosis and may expose insectivores living near both agricultural and grassland wetlands to dietary sources of toxic chemicals.