Microplastics in freshwater sediments: Effects on benthic invertebrate communities and ecosystem functioning assessed in artificial streams

Abstract The high levels of microplastics (MPs) found in freshwaters, particularly in riverine sediments, may impose a threat to the macroinvertebrate communities with possible consequences at ecosystem-level. The present study aimed to assess the effects of a mixture of different sizes of polyethylene microplastics (PE-MPs) on the composition and structure of macroinvertebrate communities and key-functions, such as primary production and leaf litter decomposition. MPs were mixed in the sediment at three different concentrations (0.1, 1, and 10 g kg-1) already found in freshwater sediments to enhance the relevance of the work. After eight days of exposure to PE-MPs, the observed changes in macroinvertebrate community structure were mostly due to the reduction in the abundance of deposit-feeders and grazers that were reduced by ca 31-50% and 34-39%, in the two highest MPs concentrations respectively, in comparison with the control treatment after 8 days of exposure. MPs internal concentrations were detected only in organisms exposed to plastic particles within artificial streams with chironomids and mayflies presenting higher MPs internal levels (average of 115 particles/individual found in chironomids, 166/individual for Baetis sp. and 415 particles/individual for Ephemerella sp.) suggesting higher ingestion of plastic microparticles. Nevertheless, the alterations in the community structure did not translate into impairments in the functional endpoints analysed, leaf litter decomposition and primary production, that were expected due to possible sub-lethal effects (e.g., feeding inhibition) on detritivores and grazers. This study represents one of the few assessments of MPs effects on freshwater benthic macroinvertebrate community structure and the first that simultaneously considered ecosystem-level functional endpoints. Further research combining different microplastics and longer exposure periods are needed to raise knowledge on potential ecological consequences of MPs to freshwaters.
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