Microplastic pollution is currently one of the most intensely studied ecological issues. Numerous studies have estimated the distribution and concentration of microplastics in various environments and determine how they affect their inhabitants. Much less effort has been place on assessing the possible effects of microplastics on interactions between organisms, including interspecific competition. Our aim was to test the hypothesis that the presence of microplastics affects the proportion of individuals of coexisting species and the elimination rate of the inferior competitor. The hypothesis was tested in competitive experiments done in the absence and presence of spherical non-biodegradable polystyrene and polyethylene and biodegradable polyhydroxybutyrate in environmentally relevant densities. In each of the experiments, we used three different pairs of closely related planktonic species of the genus Daphnia composed of the superior and inferior competitor: D. pulex and D. magna, D. magna and D. galeata, D. pulex and D. galeata. The results support our hypothesis and demonstrate each microplastic type had a different effect on the density of the competing species. The presence of polystyrene and polyethylene lowered the density of the superior competitor in each of the three pairs, at least partially due to a reduction in the number of gravid females, but not their fecundity. The presence of the polyhydroxybutyrate, in turn, increased the population density of D. magna in the variants with each of the two remaining species. Moreover, the presence of microplastics affected the elimination rate of the inferior competitor, i.e. polystyrene expedited the exclusion of D. magna by D. pulex, and polyhydroxybutyrate hampered the exclusion of D. magna by D. pulex. Our results suggest that long-term exposure to environmentally relevant densities of both non-biodegradable and biodegradable microplastics may affect the relative abundance of co-occurring species in zooplankton communities, and thus the functioning of aquatic ecosystems.
Keywords: Biodegradable plastics; Community; Interspecific competition; Microplastic particles; Population density; Zooplankton.
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