Assessing the ecology in ecotoxicology: a review and synthesis in freshwater systems


The field of ecotoxicology is experiencing a surge in attention among ecologists as we gain a deeper appreciation for how contaminants can impact natural ecosystems. This interest is particularly strong in aquatic systems where many non‐target organisms experience pesticides. In this article, we assess how pesticides affect freshwater systems by applying the conceptual framework of density‐ and trait‐mediated indirect effects from the field of basic ecology. We demonstrate the utility of this framework for understanding the conditions under which pesticides affect species interactions, communities and ecosystems. Through the integration of laboratory toxicity tests and this ecological framework, ecotoxicologists should be better able to identify the mechanisms through which pesticides affect communities and ecosystems.
We also identify several areas of research that are in critical need of empirical attention including synergistic effects between pesticides and natural stressors, the importance of pesticides on community assembly via habitat preferences and oviposition effects, the timing and frequency of pesticide applications, pesticide effects on population dynamics, the evolution of pesticide resistance in non target organisms and ecosystem recovery. With this knowledge, one can improve upon management decisions and help protect non‐target species that are of conservation concern.
The fields of ecology and toxicology have largely evolved as separate disciplines over the past century with unique journals, unique tools and a distinct jargon that has reinforced an allopatric evolution of ideas. While ecologists have focused on how biotic and abiotic factors affect species distribution and species interactions, toxicologists have traditionally focused on single‐species toxicity tests. There is, however, the growing field of ecotoxicology, a name that naturally implies a hybrid of ideas and approaches from ecology and toxicology. Given that the number of ecotoxicological studies has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade, it is an excellent time to evaluate what we have learned. In this essay, we evaluate the study of ecotoxicology in freshwater systems, an arena that has received a great deal of research focus. In doing so, we examine how one can use general ecological theory to integrate ecology and ecotoxicology to better understand and conserve the ecology of aquatic systems.
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