When a little light goes a long way

Sanders, D., Kehoe, R., Cruse, D., van Veen, F.J.F. & Gaston, K.J. 2018. Low levels of artificial light at night change food web dynamics. Current Biology, in press. 

Artificial light has transformed the nighttime environment of large areas of the earth, with 88% of Europe and almost 50% of the United States experiencing light-polluted night skies. The consequences for ecosystems range from exposure to high light intensities in the vicinity of direct light sources to the very widespread but lower lighting levels further away. While it is known that species exhibit a range of physiological and behavioural responses to artificial nighttime lighting, there is a need to gain a mechanistic understanding of whole ecological community impacts, especially to different light intensities. Using a mesocosm field experiment with insect communities, we determined the impact of intensities of artificial light ranging from 0.1 to 100 lux on different trophic levels and interactions between species. Strikingly, we found the strongest impact at low levels of artificial lighting (0.1 to 5 lux), which led to a 1.8 times overall reduction in aphid densities. Mechanistically, artificial light at night increased the efficiency of parasitoid wasps in attacking aphids, with twice the parasitism rate under low light levels compared to unlit controls. However at higher light levels, parasitoid wasps spent longer away from the aphid host plants, diminishing this increased efficiency. Therefore aphids reached higher densities under increased light intensity as compared to low levels of lighting where they were limited by higher parasitoid efficiency. Our study highlights the importance of different intensities of artificial light in driving the strength of species interactions and ecosystem functions.