DNA metabarcoding reveals the complex and hidden responses of chironomids to multiple stressors
Chironomids, or non-biting midges, often dominate stream invertebrate communities in terms of biomass, abundance, and species richness and play an important role in riverine food webs. Despite these clear facts, the insect family Chironomidae is often treated as a single family in ecological studies or bioassessments given the difficulty to determine specimens further. We investigated stressor responses of single chironomid operational taxonomic units (OTUs) to three globally important stressors (increased salinity, fine sediment and reduced water flow velocity) in a highly replicated mesocosm experiment using a full-factorial design (eight treatment combinations with eight replicates each). In total, 183 chironomid OTUs (97% similarity) were obtained by applying a quantitative DNA metabarcoding approach. Whereas on the typically applied family level, chironomids responded positively to added fine sediment and reduced water velocity in the streambed and negatively to reduced velocity in the leaf litter, an OTU-level analysis revealed a total of 15 different response patterns among the 35 most common OTUs only. The response patterns ranged from (a) insensitivity to any experimental manipulation over (b) highly specific sensitivities to only one stressor to (c) additive multiple-stressor effects and even (d) complex interactions. Even though most OTUs (> 85%) could not be assigned to a formally described species due to a lack of accurate reference data bases at present, the results indicate increased explanatory power with higher taxonomic resolution. Thus, our results highlight the potential of DNA-based approaches when studying environmental impacts, especially for this ecologically important taxon and in the context of multiple stressors.