The joint effects of larval density and 14C-cypermethrin on the life history and population growth rate of the midge Chironomus riparius.
Chemical effects on organisms are typically assessed using individual-level endpoints or sometimes population growth rate (PGR), but such measurements are generally made at low population densities. In contrast most natural populations are subject to density dependence and fluctuate around the environmental carrying capacity as a result of individual competition for resources. As ecotoxicology aims to make reliable population projections of chemical impacts in the field, an understanding of how high-density or resource-limited populations respond to environmental chemicals is essential. Our objective was to determine the joint effects of population density and chemical stress on the life history and PGR of an important ecotoxicological indicator species, Chironomus riparius, under controlled laboratory conditions. Populations were fed the same ration but initiated at different densities and exposed to a solvent control and three concentrations of 14C-cypermethrin in a sediment-water test system for 67 days at 20±1 °C. Density had a negative effect on all the measured life-history traits, and PGR declined with increasing density in the controls. Exposure to 14C-cypermethrin had a direct negative effect on juvenile survival, presumably within the first 24 h because the chemical rapidly dissipated from the water column. Reductions in the initial larval densities resulted in an increase in the available resources for the survivors. Subsequently, exposed populations emerged sooner and started producing offspring earlier than the controls. 14C-cypermethrin had no effect on estimated fecundity and adult body weight but interacted with density to reduce the time to first emergence and first reproduction. As a result, PGR increased with cypermethrin concentration when populations were initiated at high densities. Synthesis and applications. The results showed that the effects of 14C-cypermethrin were buffered at high density, so that the joint effects of density and chemical stress on PGR were less than additive. Low levels of chemical stressors may increase carrying capacity by reducing juvenile competition for resources. More and perhaps fitter adults may be produced, similar to the effects of predators and culling; however, toxicant exposure may result in survivors that are less tolerant to changing conditions. If less than additive effects are typical in the field, standard regulatory tests carried out at low density may overestimate the effects of environmental chemicals. Further studies over a wide range of chemical stressors and organisms with contrasting life histories are needed to make general recommendations.